TIFF Review: 'The Danish Girl'

The Danish Girl
(UK, 120 min.)
Dir. Tom Hooper, Writ. Lucinda Coxon
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Photo Courtesy of TIFF
“Would you do something for me?” Gerda (Alicia Vikander) asks her husband during an early scene in The Danish Girl. Gerda’s husband, Einar (Eddie Redmayne), bashfully submits. It’s a simple request, especially since both the wife and her husband are painters: she asks him to pose for her. Gerda isn’t painting a man, though; she’s painting a woman, and she needs a pair of stockinged legs to extend a pretty shoe diagonally through the canvas.

What ensues is an especially fine bit of silent acting by Redmayne as Einar embraces the dress Gerda gives him (simply the stockings won’t do) and he weaves his fingers along the seams and hugs the ridges of the material. His eyes flutter and his disarmingly androgynous features flicker as Einar coaxes out a spirit within. Cut to Vikander, working earnestly and jubilantly, and The Danish Girl paints a portrait of true love with a sting in the tail.

The Danish Girl comes to this year's Toronto International Film Festival with considerable expectations and it's safe to say that the film meets them. In some regards, The Danish Girl surpasses them. The film marks Tom Hooper's first return to TIFF since 2010's The King's Speech scooped the People's Choice Award and rode the buzz to win the Oscar. It's very possible that The Danish Girl could repeat the King's one-two punch, since this exceptionally well-crafted and flawlessly acted production rides the cultural zeitgeist. The Danish Girl delivers an accessible and inspiring film in 2015's landmark year for transgendered people. It’s the film of the moment that the widest possible audience can enjoy. While it lacks in representation what, say, Tangerine brings to the conversation using transgendered actors, The Danish Girl is nevertheless a strong and respectful addition to an overall cultural conversation, and it’s one of the dramatically satisfying films to tackle the subject.

The film dramatizes the story of Lili Elbe, a woman who was born into the body of Einar Wegener and paved the way for the Caitlyn Jenners of today by undergoing gender reassignment surgery.  Some minor infidelities to the book tweak the picture and just bring the film a bit short of doing the subject complete justice (to say would be to spoil). Fans of the book, however, will be pleased with the adaptation.

The crux of The Danish Girl doesn’t rest on the physical changes of Lili/Einar and Gerda’s transformation, but rather the emotional ones, which explains why straight-laced Redmayne still does the role justice. The impeccably focused adaptation by Lucinda Cox takes David Ebershoff’s good (but not great) novel about Lili and Gerda’s relationship and wrestles with the complex emotional predicament of a married couple that creates something beautiful a new--a child of sorts--that ultimately separates them. After Gerda invites Einar to pose for the canvas, he assumes a second life as a woman named Lili. (The name comes from their feisty dancer friend Oola played by Amber Heard, who thinks Einar looks like a pretty flower.) Lili blossoms as Einar gradually opens up in women’s clothing, bringing forth a version of himself that has been dormant until now. Gerda, Lili’s affectionate gardener, encourages Einar’s first transformation as a kind of girlish playdate. Finding Lili a pretty dress for the upcoming ball is mostly a lark to Gerda, and she doesn’t grasp its full emotional significance for her husband until the flower sprouts from the ground.

Lili’s appearance plays as a coming out ball of sorts as she accompanies Gerda to the dance in the guise of Einar’s cousin. Bashful and restrained, Lili sparkles here as if transformed by a fairy godmother. She has, and she owes a great deal to her selfless chariot, Gerda. At the ball, Lili meets her own Prince Charming in Henrik (Ben Whishaw, whose own androgyny proves a fine complement playing the butch to Redmayne’s pretty girl). This moment seals itself in a fairy tale kiss. True love awakens as another love turns to night as Gerda sees the kiss from the corridor and realizes the full extent of Lili’s awakening.

Eddie Redmayne gives a remarkably strong and nuanced turn as Lili. Redmayne easily meets the expectations set for his performance and he even outdoes himself, as The Danish Girl follows his excellent Oscar winning performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. His physicality and spirits are fuller and more complex, but the film also plays into his peculiar appearance as the camera hugs his androgynous features and caresses his nimble frame. It’s a brave performance on one level because Redmayne puts so much of himself under the lens for scrutiny, and it’s equally brave for the emotional channels it asks him to swim as he wrestles with a Jekyll and Hyde complex in which the perceived monster within is actually his saviour. The role tasks Redmayne with playing two selves while simultaneously stroking and taming competing beasts.

His co-star Alicia Vikander gamely matches and exceeds him, though, with her performance as Gerda. If The Danish Girl contributes anything new to the wave of films about trans experiences, it’s the moving story about the transition away from romantic love to unconditional love as Gerda helps Lili come fully alive. Vikander absolutely devastates as Gerda watches the man of her life become her best female friend. The role doesn’t afford her the same obvious physical transformation or extensions of wardrobe off which she may play her performance, so everything in Gerda’s transformation is Vikander’s own fire. Her focus and ability to cry streams of tears of both happiness and heartbreak at the same time shows the complexity of Lili and Gerda’s relationship as she lets the man she loves die so that they may give life and freedom to tortured soul. Vikander gives one of the most beautiful incarnations of selfless and unconditional love ever put to screen, and she adds layer upon layer of nuance and depth to a role that could have easily just been another throwaway wife part. It’s a showstopper of a performance that outdoes Redmayne’s own astonishingly good turn.

Hooper’s direction is equally impressive as he interprets the adaptation similarly to The King’s Speech by appealing to universal traits of the human condition, like the desire for love, confidence, and a grasp of one’s identity. The scale of the film is as meticulously crafted and ornate as Les Misérables with gorgeous costumes accentuating Einar’s androgyny and Lili’s freeing femininity, as well as Gerda’s billowing spirit. (The film easily wins Best Costumes walking in the door on Oscar night.) The sweeping sets of Copenhagen place this tale of recent history in a fine wrestle of past and present: it looks like old times in The Danish Girl, but the film grapples with the sad reality that a perception of transgendered people as insane, ill, and deviant is a very contemporary phenomenon, if not an ongoing work. The Danish Girl wrestles with the perceived deviance of Lili’s condition using a complex score by Alexandre Desplat that alternates dark chords with euphoric flutters as Einar tries to repress his true emotions and then hits emotional highs when he sets them free. This complex love story is easily one of the festival’s best films.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Danish Girl screens again on Saturday, Sept. 16 at the Princess of Wales at 3:15 PM.
It opens theatrically in November from Universal Pictures Canada.

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