So Eddie Redmayne is back doing his thing in an incredibly moving biopic. Sound familiar?
The Danish Girl is a sensitive and extremely powerful fictionalised telling of a true story, from David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name, based on the life of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in the transgender movement.
Assigned male at birth, Lili underwent five operations to transition into her true physical self during a period where transgender issues were still incredibly misunderstood. With very little evidence of Lili’s life remaining, as her letters and diary entries based at Institute of Sexual Research were destroyed by Nazis during the Second World War, it’s difficult to outline the exact details of Lili’s story.
I was curious as to how the storyline would pan out, but it was interesting to see that director, Tom Hooper, doesn’t rush into the plot and gives the viewer plenty of time to experience the couple’s life beforehand, while slowly introducing the significant change to emphasise the powerful impact it had on the relationship, as well as on both their lives.
The transition is intiated almost accidentally when Gerda (Alicia Vikander) asks Einer (Eddie Redmayne) to model for her while she paints. This brings Lili to the surface, moving to cross dressing and escalating quickly as Lili begins to accept her true self.
Einer is portrayed as a secretive, socially awkward figure from the beginning, preferring to avoid social interaction in favour of Gerda’s company. However, once Lili establishes herself as Einer’s true self, she becomes increasingly more confident and sociable.
The conflict of the plot originates as the frequency of Lili revealing her true nature increases. As the plot progresses, it becomes more evident that Einer’s body is just a shell that Lili is trying to smash in order to be free.
As usual, Redmayne lives up to expectations as a flexible and powerful actor. He immerses himself into the characters he plays which is reflected in his success within the industry. He is capable of stepping into the shoes of some truly great people, becoming them both physically and mentally. It’s encouraging to note he’s still relatively young, and I expect a long and illustrious career for him.
However, for me, Alicia Vikander is exceptional. She too plays a character who finds herself in what for most people is an unimaginable situation, yet she beautifully captures how very stark and real it can be for others.
Considering the context of the era, Gerda copes amazingly which is expertly demonstrated by Vikander. She plays the role of a woman who experiences the death of her husband, but the birth of a new friend, supporting Lili in an age where insanity was the diagnoses for the transgender community.
It is great to see this very real issue getting the awareness it deserves as the viewer is forced to accept the numbing reality that this is still a major issue for the LGBTQ community. Even into 2016, there is nowhere near full acceptance, and in the U.S, supposedly ‘The Land of the Free’, tolerance of the transgender community is still extremely low.
Advocates, such as the inspirational OITNB actor, Laverne Cox, campaigning for equal rights has helped the issue, but it also emphasises the amount of people living in so called ‘liberal’ countries who are still incredibly narrow-minded and ignorant.
Although I praise Hooper for placing the issue of inequality on an international stage, I feel he has missed out on some big opportunities and that the storyline is a bit of a ‘cop out’.
Yes, I think Vikander is great and she plays her role perfectly. The fact that she’s up for some major ‘supporting actress’ awards, including an Oscar, proves this (although what she’s supporting, I’ll never know – she arguably outshines and has more screen time than Redmayne and is therefore the film’s protagonist. It’s typical of the Oscars to determine that even when a male is playing a female, he’s more important than the female actor). However, despite Vikander excelling in her role, I feel Hooper should have focused a lot more on Lili’s story and what she had to face before and during transition. Instead, we see more of the affect it had upon Gerda; although I don’t mean to diminish this – it’s great that Hooper considered how the change affected Gerda too – I just feel that this was the ideal opportunity to highlight the difficulty of being in Lili’s situation in such a conservative society, and unfortunately, Hooper let it slip through his fingers. Despite some pivotal scenes, such as Lili naked in front of the mirror, all we really see of Lili’s transition is her learning to become more feminine by studying other women.
It’s clear that the two characters are very much in love, and at first Gerda doesn’t let her husband’s love of cross-dressing seem to bother her, in fact she seems to like it. However, the story takes a massive turn as she suddenly goes from acceptance to the contrary as Lili becomes more pronounced. The real-life Gerda’s own sexuality has been questioned and it seems as though Hooper begins to explore this but sharply dismisses it halfway through the film.
This version is a very heterosexual telling of a story about pioneering medical surgery for those associating as transgender. Female character, Gerda, simply becomes assigned to losing her husband and partner. Unfortunately, the situation is almost as taboo now as it was back then.
The title ‘The Danish Girl’ is ambiguous in that it leads viewers into thinking it’s describing Lili, when in actual fact it could be a description of Gerda’s character who is also a ‘Danish girl’ and seems to get a lot more attention throughout the film.
Again, another issue arises as Hooper chose to cast a white, male actor as a transgender woman which has also caused controversy and seems to be a growing problem (Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club anyone?). It raises the question, how can the transgender community get full acceptance when they’re not even cast to play transgender roles (something Laverne Cox is a great ambassador for).
The subject matter of The Danish Girl is something all Hollywood directors need to aspire to. It creates great empathy for a community who are yet to gain full acceptance within society, despite the film being set nearly 140 years ago. Although the unorthodox love story is a step in the right direction, for me it’s a little too safe and inconsistent, perfectly reflecting society’s view on minorities in 2016: ‘we know they are there; we want to accept them, but they’re just not quite like us, are they?’