The Danish Girl

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl
"This is a story of artists and models, the common outsider's perception that art is about creating fantasies, the much more challenging reality that it's about drawing out truth."

Who is the Danish girl? The only person herein referred to that way is the painter Gerda Gottleib (Alicia Vikander); it's a term edged with dismissiveness, her work seen as having less value because she is a woman. Why can't she paint more like her husband, Einar Wegener? Perhaps because Einar doesn't exist. In a film replete with painterly imagery, he's a carefully constructed illusion, and Gerda's artistic skill will gradually reveal what's underneath, even if she doesn't want to see it. This is a story of artists and models, the common outsider's perception that art is about creating fantasies, the much more challenging reality that it's about drawing out truth.

In the couple's flat is a little dog, a Jack Russell, the perfect dog for an artist of the period. One side of its face is white and one is brown, so it can be portrayed as two different animals; it presents itself according to its masters' needs. The flat is full of artists' accoutrements: paints and props and costumes. When Gerda's model is late, she asks Einar to put on her stockings and shoes so that she can finish a painting. They will become the first of many in what becomes an erotic game but quickly spirals out of control as far as both participants are concerned. The more time Einar spends as Lili, the more it becomes apparent that Gerda's desires have collided with something very real. Her own raging against the gender boundaries imposed on her by society is qualitatively different from Lili's experience, emerging from Einar, not rejecting masculine constraints but simply not being male.

Copy picture

Given this aspect of he character, and given the historical importance of the real life Lili (herein subject to some artistic license), The Danish Girl has been heavily criticised for its failure to cast a trans woman in the role. Whilst this is certainly problematic in some ways - trans actors are woefully underrepresented in Hollywood and, if they come out, practically never get cast in non-trans roles - there's no doubt that Eddie Redmayne excels in the role. Importantly, he understands that he's not playing a man magically transforming into a woman - he's playing a single individual going through a process of self-recognition and starting to change the external to fit the internal rather than the other way round. Before the experiments with clothing begin, we are already looking at somebody who doesn't quite fit in. It's an unspoken truth about the trans experience - that, though one might be ridiculed for attempting to live in a different gender role, it's often at least as difficult to convince in the role one was given at birth.

David Lynch in Twin Peaks and, more recently, Sean Baker in Tangerine have shown us the essence of trans female characters by letting us get used to them before showing them presenting in a masculine way, so that we see them as women regardless. The Danish Girl pulls this trick early on, largely due to the strength of Redmayne's acting, with Lili clearly visible when she tries to return to presenting herself as Einar. It is when she takes off her make-up, rather than when she puts it on, that her femininity is revealed. Again using the language of art, director Hooper lets us see her posing, exploring her shape and the ways in which what we read as feminine is communicated through performance as much as through flesh, but he never makes the mistake of reducing the issue to one of performance. Redmayne is just as effective at communicating the pain associated with dysphoria. Few people will come away from this thinking Lili had a choice about how to live her life.

The historicity of the story enables Hooper to avoid many latterday clich├ęs, and he deftly sidesteps the potential for farce when Lili first starts to go out and attract the attention of men. Ben Whishaw works well as the friend whose sexual interest firsts boosts her confidence and then enables her to understand what she is not - that this is not a matter of sexual orientation. Matthias Schoenaerts displays the same sensitivity he brought to Far From The Madding Crowd as a man draw to both Lili and Gerda (and perhaps once to Einar) but aware of his limited ability to help. The role of Gerda was at times assigned to some of the biggest names in the business but Vikander fills it perfectly and gives the underrated painter her own depth, revealing her as much more than the wife of somebody accidentally famous.

Danny Cohen's cinematography and Alexandre Desplat's music round out a superb production, and for once, given the artistic context, there is a proper excuse for the gorgeous costuming alongside the drama - Paco Delgado acquits himself well. The film suffers from small imperfections. The exchanging of a scarf happens so frequently that it starts to seem ridiculous, and a twee final scene reduces the power of the ending. Overall, though, this is a superb piece of work.

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2015
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The story of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe.
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