Nick Duffy reviews The Danish Girl – which stars Eddie Redmayne as historic trans woman Lili Elbe.
You have to hand it to the creators of the Danish Girl… either they didn’t do much research ahead of casting, or they simply didn’t care about the inevitable hostile reaction from trans activists.
‘Dallas Buyers Club’ was roundly criticised for putting an established male actor (Jared Leto) in the role of a trans woman. ‘Transparent’ came under fire for the same (Jeffrey Tambor). ‘Stonewall’… actually, we best not mention ‘Stonewall’.
And yet the Danish Girl went one further – they didn’t just cast a male actor in a trans role, they cast Eddie Redmayne: a former Eton pupil and heir to a business empire, as some MPs are keen to remind you.
While it’s easy to critique the film on a basic level – it’s been made now, and it’s a huge cinematic risk from King’s Speech director Tom Hooper. Does it live up to expectations?
The setting is a loving recreation of 1920s Europe, as artist Einar Wegener adopts the guise of his ‘cousin’ Lili Elbe. Redmayne’s transformation for the film is remarkable, and it’s without a doubt that his emotionally raw performance carries the entire production.
It would be easy for the film to portray Elbe as a straight-up pioneering hero, but Redmayne brings nuance: Elbe is selfish, but because she is single-minded. She has no option but to put herself before others – and brings a mixture of guilt, terror and earnest excitement to every line.
Redmayne also goes to lengths to portray Elbe’s emotional vulnerability through his own, with full-frontal nudity in the middle of one of the film’s stand-out emotional scenes.
It’s a mature take on a role that attempts to capture many facets of Elbe, and not just those that are now so celebrated.
The film mercifully steers away from most cheap gender gags, offering a straight-faced snapshot of Lili’s transformation, from modelling stockings for wife Gerda to undergoing the first gender reassignment surgery.
Lili’s wife Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) manages to stay just the right side of annoying, juggling devotion, exasperation and inner turmoil throughout.
Vikander does a lot with little in terms of her performance, managing to equal Redmayne’s two personalities with her one.
LGBT aficionados will also spot a few familiar faces peppered throughout: London Spy star Ben Whishaw steals every scene he’s in, in a role that’s all-too-brief and yet has a lasting impact on the tone. ‘Boy Meets Girl’ actress Rebecca Root also pops up for a few moments later on, presumably because someone somewhere thought it might be a good idea to have an actual transgender person in a film about transgender people.
At first, Lili is simply a game that Einar and Gerde play, giving early scenes a light-hearted, playful feel – as the pair construct her in secret and then in public by trial-and-error. There is always the promise of upcoming scandal in these scenes, but Elbe seems to have the Clark Kent effect early on: no-one can recognise her because the plot demands it.
But it isn’t just a game to Einar, who slowly becomes Lili full-time. Transitioning isn’t as easy as just putting on make-up, though, and there’s plenty of darkness for Redmayne to make sad-eyes for later on.
At times this darkness can give way to pure bleakness – and it’s at these points the film often seems to fall down a similar trap to director Tom Hooper’s last big film ‘Les Miserables’.
Just as ‘Les Mis’ did not really need the over-the-top sea of excrement in the infamous sewer scene, sometimes The Danish Girl gives the feeling that its own awards-chasing excrement is obfuscating actual details of Elbe’s story.
It might be poetic to portray Elbe as Icarus flying too close to the sun, and it might win someone an Oscar – but crucial details are often blurred or twisted to fit this lens. The film changes vital details of Lili’s surgery to fit its own narrative, which robs the story of its authentic climax. Meanwhile, history is twisted to hand another character an implied happy ending in place of a bleak one in reality.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, Redmayne gives an excellent performance and hopefully brings some knowledge of Elbe to a wider audience. The Danish Girl is not an instant classic, and it’s definitely not the definitive take on transgender filmmaking – but it’s a well-meaning, earnest attempt.