In what I would consider Tom Hooper’s most ambitious and successful film to date, newcomer Alicia Vikander has given one of the best performances of the year as Gerda Wegener, the wife of The Danish Girl, Married to Einar Wegener, whose true self as Lili Elbe emerges throughout the film, her role is every bit as fascinating. As Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan rightly says in his piece about queer films being really films about straight people, The Danish Girl really isn’t so much about Elbe as it is about Gerda Wegener. Within the context of this story told on film, which is probably sort of like the real story though not entirely, Vikander turns out to be the best part of it.
My daughter has already told me that the Tumblr rumblings about The Danish Girl and About Ray — or any film that casts cis gender people in place of trans actors — is going to find itself navigating a shitstorm. I do not feel qualified nor invited to comment on this debate. It’s not my place to talk about it, really, since I am not a trans person. And yes, you could say I have no right to talk about the “slave” controversy and Suffragette but there I do believe it was a “mistake.” I am defending Meryl Streep’s integrity because so few seem willing to do so, and if that makes me a racist to some — okay, fine. Call me a racist.
In this context, however, I can only look at The Danish Girl as a work of art. This is a film about a woman married to someone who is discovering or uncovering her true self. She frames the situation as “god made me a woman” and the medical team helped her become herself. It is a story about the first well-known transgender woman who underwent a series of operations to clarify her identity. Unfortunately, the final surgery (not in the film) to implant a uterus led to Lili Elbe’s death. The true story of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener is quite fascinating as Gerda was not just an understanding spouse who accepted her husband’s desires to wear her clothes — she was herself bisexual, and painted beautiful lesbian erotica. This was not depicted in The Danish Girl because you can only imagine how Academy members might react to that. This film, like The Imitation Game are more about easing progress into the lives of the rigid traditionalists and to do that one needs a light touch.
Still, I couldn’t help but imagine co-star Amber Heard and Alicia Vikander together discovering their own delights, perhaps if the film had been made in the 1980s and had been directed by Philip Kaufman. Ahem. As it is, however, it is very much a love story and more than that, a story of friendship.
Alicia Vikander walks away with the movie. With this and her performance in Ex Machina, Vikander’s star has risen fast in a very short time. It isn’t easy playing opposite a fine actor like Eddie Redmayne, whose adeptness at disappearing into a role is as evident here as it was last year when he played Stephen Hawking. Part of the reason Vikander is so accessible and Redmayne not as accessible is that he’s playing a character who has been walled off inside another person. Redmayne had to first figure out how to play someone not really himself. He then had to find Lili and bring her out, bit by bit. By the end of the film, there is no question of who she is.
Though the film paints this story as a tragedy, there is a delightful eroticism and playfulness in the paintings Gerda made of Lili, and of course in her other work. If The Danish Girl stands for anything beyond cis gendered people trying better to understand trans people, it’s that here is a film about a female painter, by god, at a time when women didn’t really do stuff like that. Gerda is, therefore, the true cinematic feminist hero of 2015. With her cigarette dangling from her teeth, her exposed ankles, her willingness to follow her then-husband’s wishes — matches this freed up actress so comfortable with her caramel-colored dancer’s body, leaning forward from Tom Hooper’s camera so that her vulva is visible — in a film that also shows Redmayne’s unwanted penis being tucked between his legs. The camera loves Vikander — not just for her unusual beauty but for the emotional life she accesses as the movie progresses. Do not miss The Danish Girl — even if you are politically opposed to cis gendered actors playing trans people. See it for the celebration of sexuality, beauty, art and freedom. See it for the magnificent discovery that is super alien Alicia Vikander. And finally, see it to watch Tom Hooper dip a brave toe into eroticism. If I found any flaw with the film it was that I wanted Hooper to take off his clothes and dive in.