Focus Features 120 minutes R
This is not only a gender bender, it is a mind bender and although this happened almost 100 years ago, it ignited then a sensitive subject present today. You’ll be shocked to learn that someone that long ago submitted to the first surgery to completely change from male to female.
Director, Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The King’s Speech), has taken a very controversial subject and made it extraordinarily human instead of a freak show or taboo. He says the script brought him to tears when he read it in 2008. He It’s really all about love and marriage going through “a profound transformation.” He adds that it took awhile to get funding for the project, but the time became right when Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner grabbed headlines and magazine covers.
Einar Wegener who becomes Lili Elbe is played remarkably by Eddie Redmayne. His wife, Gerda, in the role of Alicia Vikander, comes to understand and support her husband’s dramatic self discovery. Both actors show the chemistry needed to go from man and wife to equals as women and how the relationship respectfully changed.
Amber Heard plays the couple’s free-spirited friend, Ulla. Gerda is painting a portrait of her. Ulla is an accepting friend who unwittingly becomes a catalyst for Lili’s emergence when she shows up late for her sitting and sees Einar wearing her dress. Ulla adds levity to the situation as part of the Bohemian community at that time. Heard has fun with her role, but it’s a light one that gets lost early in the film.
Redmayne says he attended the all male Eton School and played women in productions, so it wasn’t a complete stretch. And he happens to make a beautiful woman, even in those tight closeups with the help of the very effective costumes, hair and makeup. Her wardrobe is extremely tailored with fine detail. Mens hats of that era were interesting. But scarves play an important part in the film and are currently a popular fashion accessory. Redmayne freely admits that he’s actually color blind and that his wife picks out his clothes. He has also previously worked with filmmaker Lana Wachowski who is a transgender on Jupiter Ascending. She became a helpful advisor with his characterization.
Vikander is someone you’re seeing a lot of. She was in four films this year.(Burnt, Ex-Machina, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and the upcoming Bourne Film) There is sex in this film, but none of it is prurient. Vikander says she was more afraid of having to paint a portrait of Redmayne as Lili in this film, than acting with him. She had to take art lessons for her portrayal. We come to care about her as much in this film as we do about him, which says a lot for the screenplay by Lucinda Coxon from the book by David Ebershoff.
Vikander shows an incredibly wide range of emotions from happy wife, to colleague as an artist, supportive for her husband’s transformation, and confidante from woman to woman. She is the only one who knows and understands what he is going through and is totally there for him/her every step of the way. She only becomes more devoted.
Hooper has been criticized for sticking with his pick of Eddie Redmayne for the role, but the actor is pretty and pretty amazing in the film. It shows how this young, and very talented couple who are well-accepted as artists, have trouble finding someone who can help Einar become Lily, which is who she really is. Even his wife accepts it, but the medical and psychiatric community want to lock him up, drill his brain and do even more horrendous procedures to “fix” his perceived abnormality.
Is this worth your bucks? This film feels long and there are some very slow transitional scenes. It takes time to find out what happens to Lili, but the detailed images make it feel like you’re watching a period painting come to life. And the performances outweigh any other shortcomings. Vikander is really an equal in this film. Her love and loyalty are the emotional drivers and she exhibits them with the slightest of expressions. This is a magnificent piece of filmmaking which moves at a deliberate pace that suits the times. It may not be the best film of the year but it may be some of the best acting you’ll see. The Danish Girl takes the tough transgender topic and turns it into a sensitive love story. And it happened nearly a century ago?