Happy new year, everybody! As 2016 begins, so does the onslaught of all of the major motion pictures that are going to be part of the conversation when it comes to picking and giving shiny prizes to movies and actors in a couple of months. One such film that has been making waves in the run up to awards season is The Danish Girl, a picture boasting a well established star and an unconventional story, two things that awards bodies seem to love year after year.
Based on a fictionalised novel but inspired by a very true tale, The Danish Girl tells the story of Lili Elbe, born Einar Wegener, one of the first known transgender women to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Eddie Redmayne plays both Einar and Lili, originally a renowned artist and husband who, through a series of bohemian parties and experiences, comes to release and accept the fact that the body she has been given in life is not the body that truly reflects her person, and the film’s narrative follows Einar’s transition into Lili, first psychologically and finally physically with the sometimes negative, eventually supportive, but always constant presence of wife and fellow painter Gerda (played by Alicia Vikander). The first thing to say about the film is that it is beautifully shot, an extremely fitting strength given that the narrative revolves around the art scenes of Denmark and Paris. Quite literally, every single frame looks as though it could be a work of art on a gallery wall, and this is something that Tom Hooper has carried through from his last major works The King’s Speech and Les Misérables. As for the narrative itself, the film is ambitious in it’s attempt to tell a life changing story in just two hours, and there certainly are times at which the break neck speed of Lili’s realisation and transformation feel too rushed on the screen. However, the pace of the picture in no way lessens the emotional impact of the tale for the audience, who are taken on an educational journey in terms of science, social attitudes, cultural stigma and historical relevance. I imagine that Lili’s story contained many more ups, and particularly downs, than were portrayed in the film, and whilst there are definitely sad and tragic moments, compared to other transgender themed movies like Boys Don’t Cry, The Danish Girl feels more inspiring and uplifting than the pictures that focus on the theme usually do. Ultimately, the film does what any good biopic (or semi-biopic, at least) should, and that is to give the audience an insight in to an extraordinary and important life whilst at the same time inspiring them to seek further information and answers outside of the cinematic universe created on the big screen. Though I immensely enjoyed the experience, I can’t help but feel that a lot of Lili’s real story was left out in favour of presenting a more palatable, slightly more comfortable and accessible motion picture package, but whether this is fault of the filmmakers or of the author whose fictionalised account they chose to take inspiration from, I do not know. What I do know, though, is that the film does a fine job of bringing to the forefront the early milestones of an important subject that remains as timely and significant today as it did back in 1926.
The casting of The Danish Girl was met with some controversy when names were announced, namely for the reason that the filmmakers had chosen to cast cisgender Eddie Redmayne in the leading role. Whilst I agree that there is a shocking lack of real transgender representation in film and television, in this particular instance I have to say that I personally found no problem with Redmayne’s casting and performance. By casting a male, the audience are given the opportunity to fully witness Einar’s transformation in to the earliest forms of Lili as Lili herself would have physically experienced it, and full praise must be given to Eddie Redmayne for a wonderful, captivating performance. As Einar, Redmayne manages to capture that essence of discomfort with one’s own body in a very economic, subtle fashion, simply in the way that he holds himself or the way that he looks at himself in a mirror. As Lili begins to emerge in a fuller capacity, Redmayne’s physicality changes, evoking a new found belonging and confidence whilst at the same time displaying an innate fragility and vulnerability that anybody undergoing such a drastic life change must feel. At no point was I brought out of the film by thoughts of Redmayne ‘playing a woman’, the actor treats both the roles he was tasked to play with great respect and great care and there is absolutely no hint of holding back or reluctance on his part. Amidst the lingering thoughts of the narrative being just a tad sugar coated, the one thing that remained constant for me was just how impressive, charismatic and enchanting Redmayne’s performance was.
Overall, The Danish Girl is a solid drama that could be accused of playing a little too safe with such an extraordinary and groundbreaking subject. Held together by beautiful cinematography and a truly wonderful performance by Eddie Redmayne, the film introduces the name of Lili Elbe to a mainstream audience and stresses it as one to remember, both for her groundbreaking life on a personal level and as a figurehead in the earliest stages of ‘modern’ transgender culture. Redmayne bagged the top prizes at last year’s awards season for portraying an important real life figure, could he be about to do the same again?