It’s impossible to review The Danish Girl – an impeccably mounted drama about a sensitive artist in 1920s Copenhagen – without first addressing its lead actor, and the disagreement over his casting.
Here, British star Eddie Redmayne plays Danish painter Einar Wegener, who, upon transitioning into Lili Elbe, became one of the world’s first known people to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Some members of the LGBTI community expressed distaste that the role didn’t go to a trans actor – the likes of whom are all but invisible in mainstream film. Similarly, last year, Jared Leto sparked a backlash when he won an Oscar for his role as Rayon, a fictional trans woman and HIV sufferer in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club.
But if you’re inclined to judge casting and performance separately, you’re in for some compelling viewing in The Danish Girl. As straight, male, cisgendered actors go, I’m not sure what more could be expected of Redmayne – he positively radiates empathy as Lili.
Furthermore, in scenes such as Lili’s first kiss with a man, he omits quiet storms of visceral emotion; joy and terror, curiosity and reluctance. The sheer complexity of the character is right there in his face.
And while Redmayne’s androgynous beauty is a fully utilized tool – the make up and costumes are nothing short of otherworldly in this film – it’s also an incidental one.
He was cast foremost for his talent and range, for his ability to illustrate a life in flux, as attested by his Oscar-winning performance in last year’s Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything. In Lili, he’s handed an equally as rich character to play – and seizes the opportunity with both hands.
It’s also worth noting Redmayne did his research before stepping in front of the camera. He consulted with various members of the trans community, calling the experience: ‘the most brilliant education – their kindness and support galvanized me.’
In short, he handles the source material with nuance and sensitivity, as does director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) – and it’s a relief. The many ways in which this film could’ve been a total disaster aren’t worth thinking about.
Albeit some will criticize The Danish Girl for being romanticized. Indeed, the question of whether the story has been watered down to appeal to straight audiences did cross my mind. But the book of the same name by David Ebershoff on which the film is based was a fictionalized account of Lili’s life, and in my opinion, Hooper’s delicate palette is artistically motivated – and no wonder, after the pomp and trauma of Les Misérables, his last film.
Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is also amazing as Einar’s highly charged wife Gerda, who demonstrates the beauty of unconditional love to great effect. The film is further elevated with a hat trick of brief but impactful supporting turns: the always-brilliant Ben Whishaw propels an otherwise slow plot as a bystander with a crush; Amber Heard plays a ballerina with an inquiring mind and a magnetic personality, and Matthias Schoenaerts is an old friend of Einar’s who lends crucial support to both Lili and Gerde.
There are some dark moments in The Danish Girl, but ultimately it feels more like a celebration: of Lili’s pioneering bravery, and of the broad-mindedness and compassion of the people around her. Superb.