Review: The Danish Girl (TIFF 2015)
PLOT: The true story of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) who was born Einar Wegener and became one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery.
REVIEW: THE DANISH GIRL is nothing if not timely. With the transgender issue dominating headlines a movie about Lili Elbe couldn't have come along at a better time. With star Eddie Redmayne having just won an Oscar and co-star Alicia Vikander in the midst of an incredibly varied and successful year with roles in EX-MACHINA, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E and now this, and you've got a movie high on the must-see list of every Oscar pundit in town (and being that we're in the middle of TIFF – there are a whole lot of them in this particular town right about now).
With Tom Hooper (THE KING'S SPEECH & LES MISERABLES) directing, you can be sure that THE DANISH GIRL is classy, sophisticated and utterly middle-of-the-road, in the kind of accessible, unexceptional way that often wins Oscars. In that way, THE DANISH GIRL seems like this year's THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING.
It helps that THE DANISH GIRL tells one heck of a true story, with Elbe's life being so dramatic that if someone made it up it would strain disbelief. In a move that will likely resonate with members of the Academy, the focus here is on the love story between Einar and his wife Gerda, who loved him so much that she was even willing to stand by and support him as he underwent a sex change, even though it met the end of their marriage. While Redmayne is exceptional and has the showier part, it's Alicia Vikander as Gerta that gives THE DANISH GIRL it's heart and soul. Arguably the true lead, her evolution is fascinating, in that she's depicted as initially sexually excited by her husband's dabbling in cross-dressing – which she encouraged through making him pose in her stocking for paintings – but then horrified when she realizes she's losing the man she loves. Her transition from wife into supportive ally is an incredibly affecting arc, especially once Matthias Shoenaerts comes into the picture as a macho but understanding and sympathetic rival for her affections.
No matter what else happens with THE DANISH GIRL, Vikander will land a nomination for best actress as the Oscars this year, although in a way she slightly overshadows Redmayne, who nonetheless tackles his physically and emotionally taxing role with aplomb. He actually looks quite striking as Lily, and a subplot with Ben Whishaw as a man eager for Lily's affections unfolds in an intriguingly unconventional way.
As usual, Hooper's mounted an attractive production with the Danish countryside looking gorgeous through Danny Cohen's lens, and Alexandre Desplat providing an emotional score that at times feels reminiscent of vintage John Barry. All that said, THE DANISH GIRL still lacks a certain something that keeps it from being more than simply a good prestige production. Hooper's yet to make an absolutely brilliant film (which is not to say THE KING'S SPEECH wasn't excellent) but there's no doubt in my mind this will be a roaring success both with mainstream audiences and the academy who – in years past – might not have been so quick to reward a trans-gendered-themed film. THE DANISH GIRL is out at exactly the right time, but it's not quite as good as people will likely be saying in the next few months.