Movie Review: “The Danish Girl”

Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Adrian Schiller
Tom Hooper

Last year, he won an Academy Award for playing Stephen Hawking. This year, he’s playing a pioneer in the transgender community. You’ll understand why people who haven’t yet seen “The Danish Girl” (this writer included, until now) have been quick to predict that Eddie Redmayne might be the first person to win back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor since Tom Hanks did it in 1994 (“Philadelphia”) and 1995 (“Forrest Gump”). This talk will change once more people see the film. This is not to say Redmayne is awful. He’s not, at all, but he’s not convincing, either. It doesn’t help matters that his co-star, Alicia Vikander, blows him off the screen in nearly every scene. There is an Oscar-worthy performance in this film; it just isn’t Redmayne’s.

It is the year 1926, and Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a successful painter. His wife Gerda (Vikander) is also a painter, but struggling to find an audience. Einar agrees to help Gerda finish an overdue painting by posing as a woman, wearing panty hose and holding the dress up over his body, and the experience awakens something long-dormant in him. He starts to dress as a woman around the house (going by the name Lili), and even poses for Gerda for paintings, and those paintings change Gerda’s fortunes in the art world. This cross-dressing thing is no joke for Einar, though; he is a woman trapped in a man’s body, and he is desperate to experience life as the woman he sees himself to be. The medical experts he visits want to have him committed, but luckily for him, Gerda has got his/her back.

There are several things to admire about “The Danish Girl.” First and foremost is the courage that it must have taken Einar to take the steps to bring Lili to life, as it were, especially considering the medical profession’s then-understandable but still-barbaric position on the idea of transgenderism. Immediately behind that is Gerda, for supporting her husband through an unthinkable ordeal, considering the time period and knowing that ultimately, it would end them. (When Gerda realizes that she’s never getting her husband back, Vikander cries what is quite possibly the saddest tear in movie history.) Third, back to Einar, for going out in public as Lili, and fooling men into thinking he was a woman. That’s career suicide if he’s outed. Who would risk that? Einar would, because it matters that much to him, and that is damned impressive.

Lastly, there is a scene where Einar visits a Parisian theater where the men get to peek at a striptease artist through a window. Einar (dressed as a man, of course) isn’t there to ogle her; he wants to learn how to mimic her movements. Eventually, the woman figures this out, and goes all in on helping him discover himself. It goes horribly wrong from there, but in the most honest, heartbreaking way.

It’s hard to imagine anyone besides Redmayne in this role, likely Oscar denial be damned. He has the perfect features for this part, though one wonders if there was some post-production work done to erase his Adam’s apple, because he doesn’t have one at any point. At the same time, he pulls the same ‘Aww shucks, you’re making me blush’ move too often, suggesting the film is terrified of getting too freaky. His work is competent, but mannered.

Vikander, on the other hand, is a revelation. She is an endless fountain of strength, and ultimately the most sympathetic character in the movie. This is the hand that she’s dealt, in 1926: will you stand by your husband while he tries to find himself in a way that modern science isn’t prepared to deal with, and if successful, will ultimately lead to you being alone? That she says ‘yes’ to any part of that is nothing short of amazing, and Vikander delivers on all fronts.

With the unveiling of Caitlyn Jenner earlier this year, “The Danish Girl” had ridiculous fortune on its side in terms of timing. There are other films that discuss transgenderism, of course, including one this year (“The End of the Tour”), but none of them had both an Oscar-winning actor (Redmayne) and director (Tom Hooper, for “The King’s Speech”). “The Danish Girl” had the potential to change the world, but instead chose to play it safe. Pity.