Straight off the back of his Oscar winning portrayal as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, the ever-loveable Eddie Redmayne has turned in another transformative display in the Oscar touted The Danish Girl. Co-starring Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard and Matthias Schoenaerts, and directed by The King Speech’s Tom Hooper, it’s a fictitious transgender love story inspired by the lives of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, from David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name.
You can almost feel the chemistry burning through their yet-to-be-painted canvases sat around their Copenhagen apartment. The Wegener’s appear to be a picture perfect, affluent young couple living the life in the vibrant Danish city. Einar (Redmayne) is making great strides as an artist, while Gerda (Vikander) – a talent with a paint brush in her own right – is struggling to get out of her husband’s shadow, but the pair are strong and, it seems, very much in love.
On waiting for their dancer friend Ulla (Heard) so that Gerda can finish a portrait of her, Einar steps in – women’s shoes and leggings in tow – so his doting wife can put the final touches to her latest piece. Yet in this moment, something changes: the fitting of the shoes, the feeling of a dress, what started as a game – dressing up and going to parties – transcends into something far more as Einar’s inner Lili comes out of the shadows.
Living and dying on the strength of its two central, yet contrasting, performances, The Danish Girl is an effective, if somewhat straight-edged affair which never quite fully convinces. Redmayne, similarly to his performance in The Theory of Everything, shows care and consideration whilst dealing with tender subject matter, as Vikander similarly shows a large dosage of warmth and steel in a highly nuanced display. The film comes alive when the pairing share the screen. Whether it’s their genuinely hypnotic early connection as a seemingly happily married couple, or the unconventional disintegration of their holy connection, the pair’s screen presence is awards worthy.
Hooper’s latest work, however, appears to get caught in a sticky cross roads between being an unconventional love tale and its over-arching transgender narrative. The former is its strongest element: mapped out from happily married to forever friends, despite Einar’s transformation into Lili, the sense of love between the two never wains. The Oscar winner’s portrayal of the once admired artist’s journey to his new self is a fleetingly difficult one. Internal turmoil – relationships, weight loss and attraction – are dealt with in exquisitely subtle fashion from the Les Mis star. Yet we’re teased with the external torment; the homophobic abuse and the professional mind-set (“You do realise your husband’s insane?” declared one doctor), such issues of increasing relevance, are passively dealt with.
As a tale of love, marriage and friendship The Danish Girl strikes a big chord. The Redmayne-Vikander partnership plays out beautifully. On the one hand is a strong woman accepting, yet heartbroken, over her husband’s transformation, while in the other is a person who is demonstrably ever-increasingly uncomfortable in their own skin. Yet remove this remarkable relationship and you are left with a rather standard feature which skims over controversy (romance, homophobia or otherwise) in rather boorish fashion, with its steady line of surface deep supporting characters, all wrapped up in a period dressed slow-burning narrative.