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Film Review: The Danish Girl

16th December 2015

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Exactly one year on from The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl offers another highly physical, transformative performance from Eddie Redmayne - and another that will reach our cinema screens on New Year’s Day, perfectly positioning itself for awards season.

Whilst as stylistically beautiful as the Hawking biopic, however, and featuring an equally talented supporting actress (Alicia Vikander rather than Felicity Jones, in this case), The Danish Girl doesn’t quite live up to its suggested magic in the same way.

The film has come in for its first criticisms in the way that it depicts Lili’s femininity – her coy swan-neck, her apparent meekness, her giggles behind the counter in a perfume shop, and so on. We have to remember the period that director Tom Hooper’s story is set in, however. There was no precedent for transgender behaviours in the 1920s. In coming into herself, Lili Elbe has little choice but to follow the femininity that she sees in her societal context. To portray her as anything other than coy and traditionally feminine would surely have been a faux pas on Redmayne’s part.

The scenes that work the least are when Einar – still Einar, in his first public outing as Lili but (debatably) without the knowledge of what will come next – attends an artists’ ball with wife Gerda. The episode feels clunky, and the question of whether anyone would have recognised Einar in his guise of Lili raises itself continually. There is a relatively realistic depiction of how vulnerable women can be coerced with the appearance Ben Whishaw, though.

The real star here is arguably Alicia Vikander, whose nuanced performance as the emotionally strong Gerda plays well against the other Danish girl of the title – Lili, navigating cautiously what it means to be female whilst her wife has no such concerns.

I wanted Gerda and Einar/Lilis’ bohemian lifestyle to be more pronounced. In this version of their story we see them moving to Paris to pursue Gerda’s art, whilst in reality they chose the French capital as it was where, crucially, Gerda could live as a lesbian whilst Einar simultaneously lived openly as Lili. This vital part of the puzzle is left out of The Danish Girl, presumably so that attentions can be focused almost entirely on Lili without a second plot being added into the mix. Mainstream, easy to digest success pre-awards season edges closer as a result of this lack of complexity.

There are also issues with time. Whilst the actual events of Lili’s realisation and transformation took a couple of decades, the story here is crammed into five years (1926 – 1931.) Although the events are faster than they were in reality, we still don’t get a full sense of the time that has passed. Whilst remaining calm throughout, it seems that Gerda has adapted to the situation remarkably well. We often have to remind ourselves that she has been living with Lili for a few years rather than a few months, although the cinematic choices and script don’t particularly help us with this.

I also wanted more building up to the film’s final moments, which are slightly underwhelming. We don’t get a real sense of the pain, emotional or physical, that Lili must be going through, and whilst this has been described as sensitive and humane in various reviews, it could also be seen as skirting the very real issues that are at hand in order to focus on the easier to watch melodrama.

Cinematically, the film is beautiful. But I wanted to leave it feeling real emotion, rather than wishing I could be spirited to the 1920s so that I could delve into the depths of Gerda’s, and eventually Lili’s, wardrobe.

The Danish Girl is an important story and one that should undoubtedly have been told – but the weight of its subject matter should surely have warranted a greater complexity rather than the emotional melodrama that it offers.

The Danish Girl is released in UK cinemas on 1st January 2016.

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