Film Review | The Danish Girl

Does Tom Hooper's Oscar-baiting transgender painter drama challenge or coddle?

Eddie Redmayne (centre) guns for the Oscar once again as he takes on the role of the pioneering transgender painter Einar Wegener, helped along by his long-suffering wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander, left)
Eddie Redmayne (centre) guns for the Oscar once again as he takes on the role of the pioneering transgender painter Einar Wegener, helped along by his long-suffering wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander, left)

Based on a novel that’s in turn loosely based on a striking episode in LGBTIQ history, The Danish Girl also marks the first time director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) gets around to making a semi-decent drama that’s lush enough to keep your attention but narratively sparse enough to just about justify its critical and awards-attention.

But after all is said and done, is this multiple-Oscar nominated film about the pioneering between-the-wars transgender painter Einar Wegener simply yet another vessel for Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) to continue on his award-clutching warpath, and to cement Hooper as the reliable go-to option for sumptuous period dramas laced with ‘human interest’ sprinkling?

In Copenhagen in the early 1920s Danish artist, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), while struggling to establish herself independently of her own successful painter husband, Einar Wegener (Redmayne), encourages him to stand in for a truant female model for a portrait. This proves to be something of a turning point for Gerda’s art, as previously skittish art dealers start to finally give her time of day. But what starts off as a convenient career re-jig for Gerda ignites a far more significant spark for Einar.


Realising that he’s more at home being ‘Lili’ than Einar, he embarks on a journey that will ultimately result in him being one of the first people on the planet to undergo gender-reassignment surgery. But beyond the medical dangers of such a risky procedure, what Hooper’s film concentrates on is how Einar/Lili’s peculiar sexual identity weighs down on the central couple’s relationship.

However, the fact is that the story we’re seeing on our screens – and the same story that secured four Oscar nominations: two for its lead actors, another two for costume and production design – isn’t exactly an attempt at presenting unmediated fact. The script by Lucinda Coxon is based on the 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff – a critically acclaimed but also openly fictionalized account of what happened between Lili and Gerda during those fateful years.

And though a lot of what we know about Lili comes from her autobiographical memoir, Man into Woman (which also however underwent an editorial process before being posthumously published in 1933), it is difficult to image that Coxon would not have taken substantial liberties with fact – or at least indulged a healthy amount of speculation – if Ebershoff hadn’t done it already.

Because this is, above all, a film about a relationship... though it may seem equally invested in securing its position as a piece of bona fide heritage cinema for the ‘transgender movement’, as it is described in the explanatory captions at the end. As such, it’s a make-or-break deal that hinges on the strength of its actors, and true to how she’s positioned in the film, Vikander appears to be the one burdened with the harder job of it.

It may just be that Redmayne, in his second collaboration with Hooper after Les Miserables, is getting a bit too comfy in his role as the British it-boy of the hour.

Prior to the full transformation into Lili, we get to enjoy some good banter between the couple, and the ever-versatile Vikander – herself something of an androgynous presence – is instantly charming as the relaxed, bohemian partner to the superstar painter. She’s a ‘liberated woman’ who appears to be engaging in what emancipation should be all about – something Hollywood often forgets – which is the simple enjoyment of being whoever you want to be.

It’s because of this that her journey throughout the rest of the film is interesting to watch: Gerda struggles to reconcile her previously easy-going nature with steeling herself to confront what becomes a very real social and psychological problem.

Like Marion Cotillard in last year’s Macbeth, Vikander suddenly realizes, perhaps far too late, that she needs to tap into greater reserves of understanding than she may have in order to deal with this. Vikander meets this challenge with dignity and poise, and only goes melodramatic when she’s earned it.

It’s a shame that Vikander is, in fact, competing for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and not the Leading one, if only because Redmayne doesn’t actually appear to be giving his A-game to a project that’s supposed to be all about consolidating his talents. Playing both Einar and Lili with stagey brittleness that grates when it’s support to inspire compassion and understanding, Redmayne can’t possibly carry the film on his own.

But The Danish Girl ultimately remains a triumph for Tom Hooper. He had a far too easy head-start with the crowd-pleasing The King’s Speech, and the interminable and shrill Les Miserables had him – almost literally – playing to the gallery of musical theatre fans. But nobody could ever fault his ability to get the best out of his costume, production design and cinematographic team, which is this time comprised of Paco Delgrado, Eve Stewart and Danny Cohen respectively.

His excesses pruned by a somewhat constricted and pruned-to-cliché story of an  unconventional relationship, we can enjoy the undeniably beautiful shots of both Copenhagen and Paris – with the occasional landscape scene that segues into an actual painting – as they happen. 

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