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New Release Review - THE DANISH GIRL

Loose biopic of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe.


Review by Rúairí Conneely (@rmconneely)

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw


Director Tom Hooper has created a very timely and sensitive film in The Danish Girl, one that carries forth the themes and dilemmas that arise from transgender transition without announcing explicit messages every ten minutes through a loudhailer.



The Danish Girl is a film I approached with a full measure of reserve and scepticism. As I’m sure I’ve bemoaned at length in other reviews for this site, I am no lover of biopics, and ones where there is a sense of timeliness or current political relevance just make me suspicious. I’m happy to report then, that The Danish Girl aims to be an actual story, rather than a medium for benign propaganda.
An adaptation of a novel which is itself an adaptation of a true story, this film has been characterised by authoritative sources (joking, I meant Wikipedia) as ‘pseudo-biographical’, which seems like a black mark against it, but in fact, liberates the story from the constraints of excessive historical accuracy. Call it The Braveheart Effect, maybe.
Husband and wife artists Gerda and Einar Wegener (Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne) live and work in Copenhagen in the 1920s, pursuing their careers and enjoying their playful, impassioned matrimony. Gerda is frustrated by the lack of receptiveness towards her vivid contemporary portraiture while her husband’s sparse and unpopulated landscapes receive their due measure of respect. The obvious sexism that inspires her frustrations introduces a theme of prejudice and institutionalised bigotry that grows and mutates over the course of the film’s runtime.
Einar and Gerda are a racy, borderline scandalous couple for their time and place. They are disinterested in children and preoccupied with breaking into the international arts scene. Vikander and Redmayne create a convincing sense of a fond and vital relationship between young lovers. Their dry asides, teasing quips and trust in each other are charming and easy to invest in. It may seem that the first act has some pacing issues but in fact there are some complicated thematic and narrative targets being established that the storytellers are aiming to hit later on.
Into the idyll of youthful married bliss comes Lili: when Gerda insists that Einar sit to finish a portrait she is making of a svelte ballerina in brief repose, the stockings and dress he has to model spark something sensuous and long ignored within Einar’s psyche. This becomes a fun and scandalous game of “Let’s Make Einar into a Girl” until it turns out, however, that Einar is already a girl, deep within himself, and once she’s been called up, Lili, his fun alter ego, refuses to be put back down.
Director Tom Hooper has created a very timely and sensitive film in The Danish Girl, one that carries forth the themes and dilemmas that arise from transgender transition without announcing explicit messages every ten minutes through a loudhailer. That’s not to say that the film won’t seem a little antique and unsubtle a few decades from now, but the production aims to focus on the characters as much as it can. The story of Lili is more than rich enough in incident to keep a plot turning over in an engaging fashion. The psychological fallout of Lilli’s path to self-discovery is tenderly and believably portrayed, building from the marriage as established in the first act, to communicate the sweeping emotional changes the principals and their supporting characters undergo. Special mention, for me, goes to Matthias Schoenaerts as Hans Axgil, Einar’s boyhood friend. As a ‘confirmed bachelor’ and a strong compassionate presence in the second half of the film, Schoenaerts is refreshing. Rarely do you see a gay male character plausibly presented as a centre of red-blooded, old-fashioned masculinity within a film.
The cinematography and shot composition of The Danish Girl are deliberately very painterly and elegant, placing the viewer subtly within the psyches of the characters (most of the characters are artists, art dealers, or in the case of Amber Heard’s enjoyable and slightly underused Oola, a dancer). This is a very dialogue driven film, which could veer into cheap melodrama once too often if the staging and rendering of scenes were not handled with cleverness and professionalism.
Overall, The Danish Girl is a good film trying and mostly succeeding in avoiding being preachy. Its success is in its focus on character and its judicious casting.
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