For two years running Eddie Redmayne has turned in catnip-for-Oscars performances so well-tailored to Academy voters the words ‘For Your Consideration’ may as well have been printed on his costumes.
Or, in last year’s instance, stamped across a wheel chair: the 34-year-old Brit took home a Best Actor gong for his “crip-up,” losing the ability to speak, walk and keep his neck straight in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything
This year Redmayne applies lippy, dresses in 1920s women’s clothes and performs surely the most tastefully executed mangina so far in cinema history — not a highly competitive field, but progress of a kind.
Director Tom Hooper, no stranger to Oscars buzz himself (having helmed Les Miserables and The King’s Speech), journeys well below waistline in a taciturn close-up depicting the actor tucking his member away, his character contemplating a sex change without anybody having to spell it out directly in dialogue.
Redmayne plays real-life trans inspiration Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Such operations in the ’20s were not, of course, what they are today and the medical element forms a surprisingly substantial part of Hooper’s focus. It comes less in the context of a specific medical process and more via contemplation of the industry’s attitudes towards (and scepticism of) the idea that a woman can be born inside a man’s body.
Lili — at this point in the running time still Einar — visits doctors who are, to put it generously, unhelpful. One applies radiation: “It destroys the bad,” he says, but the procedure does nothing — and this is not quite the sort of film where a radiation experiment accidentally transforms the protagonist into a superhero (note to Hollywood: here’s a marketable point of difference for you — our first trans crime fighter. Make it happen). One diagnoses her as a schizophrenic and tries to shove her in a straitjacket; another suggests the “problem” can be fixed by drilling two small holes in either side of her head.
Mostly avoiding an easy way to crank up dramatic conflict — by focusing on bigotry from people observing Einar in drag, or introducing a wicked stepmother-type figure — the protagonist is actually supported by the main players around her. These are her childhood friend-cum-art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), a potential love interest Henrik (Ben Wishaw) and most of all Einar’s wife and fellow professional painter Gerda (Alicia Vikander). The couple live together in Copenhagen.
Redmayne has the poster-dominating all-eyes-on performance, but Alicia Vikander (also Oscar-nominated) is more powerful and more subtle — which is also crucial to the audience’s emotional comprehension of Lili’s journey. Adapted by screenwriter Lucinda Coxon from a novel by David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl grapples with how to explore a person’s decision to change gender while emphasising the point that, born with the wrong body parts, there was never really a decision at all.
It’s an interesting dilemma from a storytelling point-of-view because the drama doesn’t follow a character contemplating doubt (Lili is woman and she knows it), nor can it focus on her tracking down the right surgeon because the process was virtually unheard of at the time. To help her and Gerda deal with the emotional challenges Einar insists they separate her past by referring to Lili in the third person.
This initially feels like footsteps towards an awkward Jekyll and Hyde routine, but it’s done with taste and tact. Hooper contemplates Einar’s realignment by drawing heavily upon Gerda, who is confronted with the unusual challenge of having to say goodbye forever to a person she loves while also understanding everything that matters about them — mind, heart, soul — will remain.
Vikander, so good as an emotion-impersonating robot in last year’s cyberpunk talkie Ex Machina makes it all hang together in the audience’s eyes. Her performance is a deft blend of headstrong and vulnerable. Redmayne cuts a reliable pair of negligee-strapped shoulders, if a little reserved in his bone china look. Like Cate Blanchett in Carol there is a sense that his performance eclipses the character.
Also like Carol, The Danish Girl is highly formalised, generally risk-averse and told from a modern, liberal vantage. Director Sarah Gavron’s high-voltage historical drama Suffragette — another recent women’s issues film relayed from a contemporary perspective — garnered less kudos but is edgier, gutsier and drew a more compelling through line between events of yesteryear and sensibilities of today.
The strength of Gerda’s character and The Danish Girl’s commentary on how Einar/Lili is treated by doctors leads the film to its most interesting moments. The latter evolves into a salient message: that accepting somebody for who they are is one thing, and the medical profession responsibly catering to that is quite another.