2015 marks yet another strong year for compelling, complicated, and capable female characters; Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, Emily Blunt in Sicario, Carrey Mulligan in Suffragette, Cate Blanchett in Truth and Carol, Brie Larson in Room, and, heck, even Julia Roberts in Secret in Their Eyes. It’s a palpable success for feminists and Hollywood alike, but more so when you consider Eddie Redmayne’s performance in The Danish Girl is worthy of the likes of those mentioned above. Paired with Oscar-winning Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and opposite to the blossoming Swede of Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), Redmayne employs his boyish complexion, freckled-face, and warmly charming gaze as Einer Wegener and, more alluring and splendidly, as his female identity, Lily.
Bringing the stirring true story to the big screen, Redmayne, as Einer, resides with his wife Gerda (Vikander) in their studio of a home in 1920s Denmark—a fitting living arrangement considering both are respected painters, Einer more so than his struggling significant other. After rejecting her latest series, an art dealer suggests to Gerda that she needs to find the right subject, like Einer has with barren Danish bogs. Deciding to paint her ballerina friend (Amber Heard), Gerda asks Einer to take her place while she’s running late—adorning her husband with a lavishly stark toto and stockings which caress Einer’s lean and delicate legs. To Gerda the transformation is a humorous sight, but through Hooper’s attentive lens we see the clothing has awakened something buried within Einer. He can’t quite put his finger on it, though when the subject does finally show instead of taking Einer’s place, she laughingly thrusts a beaucoup of flowers into his hands and declares him Lily.
Einer doesn’t reject the moniker, in fact his comfort with it results in a night out as Lily under the alias of his own imagined cousin. Gerda, again, finds the fun in Einer’s transformation and sets out to make her husband the belle of the ball—watching Redmayne learn to mimic soft hand placement and a foot-over-foot strut are early highlights of the Brit’s performance. A fairytale evening ensues, as the Wegeners attend an artisan social gathering where all eyes are locked on the Danish girl. Not because of Einer’s semi-apparent masculinity, rather because of how well suited Redmayne’s genteel features pop under Lily’s amber wig. Of all the men, one finally approaches Lily: Henrik (Ben Whishaw), an admirer of Einer and his work. He opens her up and the two eventually share a kiss… at Greda’s untimely arrival. Her painting career has taken off since Lily’s arrival, and in doing so an almost reverse Pygmalion effect takes place—she’s falling out of love with her creation.
Thankfully, she runs into someone who can help: Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), an art dealer who shared an intimate incident with Einer as a child. An intriguing, though not fully realized, cross-sexual love triangle results in Einer looking into what several doctors determine to be an identity crisis of sorts. Finally the trio discover a German doctor willing to perform a gender correction surgery. It’s an initial godsend, but the procedure is extremely risky. For Einer, however, he declares there’s no other option. “I think Lily’s thoughts, I dream her dreams. She was always there.” By now, Lily has fully taken form—a studious visit to an sensual dancer signifying a point of no return for Einer in the tenderly shot scene and another one of Redmayne’s most progressive. Concurrently, however, Vikander is nipping at his heels with an equally diligent showing. Watching Greda learn to slowly let her husband go is a heart wrenching undertaking, yet one that articulates around Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon’s acceptive, though deeply saddening, render of Greda. “I need to talk to my husband, and I need to hold my husband can you at least try?” she asks Einer. “I’m sorry,” Lily solemnly replies.
Just as fine are Hooper and Cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) picturesque frames. Whitewashed walls, striking European landscapes, countryside murals, and even still paintings of Lily somehow look that much more gorgeous in the eyes of the creative duo. The colour palate grows nearing the end of the final act, yet the proceeding effect is anything but additive. My disappointment is not so much with the continually popping images as it is with a handful of Coxon’s safe and opaque decisions by the end of the second and entire third act. A more immersive perspective during Lily’s visits to several certified doctors with armchair diagnostics would have added the desired ounce of energy absent in the rushed montage effect, and never really delving into the apparent hopelessness of a male wanting to abandon his gender privileges in the 1920s. And although the conclusion was perhaps a tad too sappy, maintaining a positive outlook could help ensure films of transgender issues maintain an important longevity in Hollywood’s shrinkingly phallic hills.