Writing with the benefit of hindsight, it’s disappointing to see that The Danish Girl hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, barely making back its small budget. But it’s equally pleasing to see an Oscar-winning director, an Oscar-winning actor, and an Oscar-nominated actress helping to realise a project so small, intimate and unusual. The Danish Girl is, in my opinion, not a perfect film; but if the film is sometimes clumsy, it’s surely only because the story it tells is something so delicate.
Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander star as Einar and Gerda Wegener, modestly successful painters in 1920s Copenhagen. Living in a cavernous apartment a little reminiscent of the therapist’s offices in The King’s Speech, they’re true artists: mischievous, mercurial, and fond of playing games, like The Danish Girl itself. Gerda’s world is shaken when she discovers that Einar is more than just fond of dressing in her clothes: Einar is a woman, who rapidly discovers a new identity with Gerda’s encouragement. Garda’s support only wavers when she realises what’s at stake: losing her husband for good.
What follows is a story dictated by the ebb and flow, tension and release of Lili’s desires, whereas less subtle filmmakers would have plotted a simple course from A to B with the requisite third act calamity. Here’s a story that just a few years ago might have been played as a tragedy: but The Danish Girl a love story in reverse, a very modern take on self-actualisation – and if it ends just as you might expect, sadly there’s only so far you can bend the truth when telling a true story.
Redmayne’s work is typically excellent, his boyish smiles and slender, awkward frame finding their a righteous use. Vikander is more than a match for Redmayne, and her chemistry with him as both Einar and Lili is electric. Her inevitable Oscar nomination is well-deserved.
Befitting a film about painters, Tom Hooper and favoured cinematographer Danny Cohen acutely capture a portfolio’s worth of muted grey days, misty reflections, empty canvases and dusty fabrics. But Hooper’s skill as a director beyond capturing great performances and framing pretty pictures is evident: for instance, Lili’s first courtship with a Copenhagen man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw) is tense, tender and heartbreaking from second to second.
The Danish Girl puts a new twist on a hoary old trope: that of a personal awakening catalysing an artistic epiphany, although here it’s Lili’s journey which inspires Gerda’s greatest artworks. If you’re aware that the film has taken a lot of shots for focusing on a cisgender character’s story, it’s true, although I never felt it was at the expense of the trans journey as embodied by Lili. Less fashionable: there are a few moments here that will make you groan if you’ve ever seen any other movie, ever – one scene with a scarf floating in the wind will make you wish the film had ended 30 seconds earlier.
All in all, The Danish Girl is three things in one; something of a disappointment commercially, a greater success as a sensitive and moving trans story (with a few caveats), but as a piece of filmmaking? An unqualified triumph.