It took me far longer than planned to see The Danish Girl, a film I had been looking forward to ever since the first trailer was released last year. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed, finding this to be a genuinely beautiful and moving film.
Based on the book of the same name, it is a fictionalised account of the lives of two married Danish painters in the mid-1920s. Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a respected and successful landscape artist, married to portrait artist Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who is struggling to find similar acclaim. On being asked by his wife to stand in for a female model, Einar’s unspoken, repressed feelings about his own identity start to come to the surface. Initially Gerda sees this as a game, creating a persona for Einar to become at functions he always detests attending with her. That person is Lili.
However, soon she cannot ignore the struggle which Einar is facing and what follows is an incredibly moving story of not only Lili Elbe (named after the river), who became one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery, but also Gerda’s journey of acceptance that her life is going to be different from that she’s imagined.
The film’s success depends on the two central performances and the casting of Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander is its greatest strength. Redmayne is excellent at effectively playing two characters, Einar and Lili and I cannot imagine anyone else capable of the delicate beauty required for the roles in order to capture the emotional struggle of each one. His portrayal of Einar as he tries to understand his feelings is very believable. Scenes in which he is intently watching women, studying their mannerisms and movements, are handled perfectly by this hugely talented actor and scenes in which he visits various doctors (some of whom try to commit him) are heartbreaking. Redmayne is also superb as the shy, nervous Lili, as we watch her struggle to find her place, both in her relationship with Gerda and the wider world.
However for me, the emotional core of the film is Gerda, its other Danish girl and Alicia Vikander is superb throughout. She starts as the wife of a well-known artist, perhaps frustrated by her own career’s lack of such visibility and becomes someone recognised for her own talent, through the popularity of her paintings of Lili, which leads to their move to Paris. However, despite growing recognition for her art, Gerda has to learn to accept the loss of her husband. She clearly loves Einar and you feel her pain in a very real way as you watch her try and come to terms with losing him, while still being a strong, loving support for Lili. Indeed there were moments when I found myself angry with Lili for how her actions affected Gerda, such as when she admits to Gerda that she has secretly been visiting Henrik (Ben Whishaw). The power of Vikander’s performance made such feelings unavoidable for me and you become desperate for both women to be happy.
Although the focus of the film is understandably on its two leads there are lovely supporting performances. Matthias Schoenaerts is also very good as Einar’s childhood friend Hans Axgil, who ultimately develops a close bond with Gerda and is someone you hope will be there for her during such an emotional time and Ben Whishaw has a small, but important role in Lili’s journey to feel accepted for who she is.
Although I very much enjoyed the film, I was conscious of the fact that this is a fictionalised account and this did somewhat frustrate me. For example, Henrik and Hans aren’t real people and Gerda sadly wasn’t there supporting Lili (who died after her fifth surgery, rather than her second) during her final days and I did find this a little frustrating when thinking about the film overall.
That said, director Tom Hooper has made a beautiful film, both visually (in both the sets, especially in their Paris flat and the costumes) and emotionally, due to the powerful performances of Redmayne and Vikander. I certainly felt invested in Lili and Gerda’s lives and did find the end very effecting. Although, in some respects, I think this performance by Redmayne is more impressive than the one that won him his Academy Award last year, I’ll be surprised if he is recognised two years in a row (he is a Brit after all). So far he is the lead actor Oscar nominee who moved me the most, but Leonardo DiCaprio impressed me in a completely different way in The Revenant. It’s a very close race between the two of them in my opinion. However, I’ll be sad for Vikander if she doesn’t win this year. She is wonderful in this film and a win for her would be lovely to see.
The Danish Girl is still on general release at cinemas throughout the UK. Watch the trailer here.