After a victorious season for Eddie Redmayne last year, the Best Actor winner returns to the awards conversation this year for his latest collaboration with director Tom Hooper, The Danish Girl. Having previously worked together on the big-screen adaptation of the Broadway smash Les Miserabes, Redmayne and Hooper comfortably join forces again to execute their vision of Lili Elbe, one of the first known people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. The film is adapted from the fictionalized novel of the same name, not a representation of Lili’s actual experience, and The Danish Girl uses that responsibility and artistic liberty to find its voice in telling such an important story. The film honors Elbe for being a champion in the transgender community. Dripping of class and jeweled sentiments, The Danish Girl will illuminate and enlighten its audience, and serves as another title for the two Oscar winning artists to add to their portfolio of cinematic riches.
The film meticulously assembles its screenplay to accumulate Elbe’s various feelings and struggles, forming a semblance of truth from her life. The Danish Girl is circumspect in how it divulges and executes the information in its plot. The risks it takes in telling the story of Elbe and Gerda Wegener are less audacious when compared to other films and television shows that are aiming at different demographics, such as Tangerine and Transparent, but that is part of the film’s backbone. The point of The Danish Girl is not to shock but rather to relay a refined sense of beauty in Lili’s journey, which it does in a direct and authentic way. It does not compromise, hide, or “whitewash” the LGBTQ portion of the narrative — How could it? — which is the most commendable aspect of the project. The Danish Girl accomplishes the agenda it sets out to achieve, and does not leave the audience unfulfilled with broken promises or empty storytelling.
Hooper transparently displays Lili’s journey to the viewers, making the more graphic scenes, such as Lili tucking her penis between her legs, essential pieces of her puzzle for the audience to collect and reflect upon. Moments like that are majestically composed and superbly acted, as are the ways Hooper devises the most principle moments of Lili’s creation on screen. He conducts two montages — one in the first act (where Gerda first dresses Lili and teaches her how to walk as a woman) and one at the beginning of the third act (when Gerda decides to uncompromisingly accept Lili as the new identity of Einar) — that are almost magical by way of the film’s smooth editing and sublime score.
Hooper is often served an abundance of criticism for his work as a director, such as with the “safe” nature of The King’s Speech, which overrode the support of The Social Network during the back-half of the 2010-2011 film award season, and the highly stylized, extremely close-up, one-take musical numbers in Les Miserables. But with his work in The Danish Girl, Hooper emits the best quality in his pocket of talents: He plies the film with magnificent, larger-than-life emotional sensibilities. His approach may be too sugary for some who do not necessarily care for direction that manifests with melodrama, but for others, watching The Danish Girl is like biting into a juicy piece of fruit. The emotional staging of the film outweighs preconceived notions (if any) that the project would disappoint, overcompensating in its delivery. In fact, the way the characters are framed within the mis-en-scene and the actors are guided in their interpretations compellingly grip the picture, which is reminiscent of his effective technique in Les Miserables.
Even as The Danish Girl was filmed and released at an opportune time in America, where LGBTQ social issues have become a force in modern politics, it would be reductive to characterize Lili’s story as simply one of a transgender character transitioning between sexes. There’s a broader story about identity within the The Danish Girl, which says alternative identities lie underneath the layered surface of the characters in the story and, to a greater extent, many of the rest of us in real life. Hooper conveys this larger theme with Danny Cohen’s cinematography, showing shadows of subjects in the atmosphere as having another sense of self other than the one visibly existing in nature. Both of the characters’ professions communicate this as well: Painters bring out different identities of their subjects using their illustrations on canvases as a means of expressing what is within. Lili’s transition is the overt face of this message, but another thread to the narrative is Gerda’s career as an artist, which begins to flourish when Lili becomes her main subject. Perhaps it is the deconstruction of their marriage due to the emergence of Lili that allows the two protagonists new possibilities to grow into their truer selves.
Redmayne produces more daring work in The Danish Girl than he did in his Oscar-winning role of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. He internalizes Lili’s vulnerability and fears and breathes life into them. When Lili cries, it’s as though Redmayne is bleeding her emotion out of his eyes. His method of creating Lili differs greatly from Alicia Vikander’s portrait of Gerda, who aggressively launches herself into the role. She is a vessel of sensational melodramatic power. Vikander absorbs the energy in each scene, then imparts it back to the viewer, practically stealing the film away from Redmayne’s strong leading performance. Adding to the acting supremacy of the leads is a noteworthy turn from Matthias Schoenaerts. In The Danish Girl, he relinquishes the domineering physical acting he delivered in films like Rust and Bone and settles into more contained work as Hans Axgil, Lili and Gerda’s main support system.
Because of the film’s concise social discussion and vivid emotional life, The Danish Girl is worthy of Oscar consideration. Colors bounce off of each other, mix together, and create ravishing visuals in the sets and costumes. The music is divine, the performances are splendidly thorough, and the grandeur of the aesthetics are undeniably luscious.