On the surface of it, The Danish Girl is an ideal example of the Holiday Season Award-Seeking Syndrome — the familiar entertainment-biz game of stacking the deck of movie releases with big-name projects in the last quarter of the year, in order to be more readily considered for such year-end recognition as Golden Globe and Oscar nominations and film critics’ awards.
The Danish Girl is heavily front-loaded with familiar contestants’ brand names. Actor Eddie Redmayne won a Best Actor Oscar last winter for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Filmmaker Tom Hooper took home his own Academy Award in 2011, as Best Director, for The King’s Speech. The plot of Redmayne and Hooper’s new movie revolves around a currently hot lifestyle topic: the predicament of a successful artist who comes to the realization that he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body. And from what we could see in the previews, the settings are outrageously decorous, another plus for anything aspiring to exalted coffee-table-picture status. For all these reasons we were prepared to disdain The Danish Girl — or at least to be mildly bored by two hours of calculated good taste lightly brushed with non-threatening rebelliousness.
Look how wrong we can be. The Danish Girl — with a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon from a novel by David Ebershoff — turns out to be one of the most entertaining releases of the season, a deep-dish drama with performances and milieu to match. In the role of Einar Wegener, a successful Danish landscape painter of the 1920s with a secret identity, Redmayne has the wisdom to sneak up on the money shots of him in full female regalia, gradually, one step at a time. His is the dilemma of a man who cares so fervently for his art, his artistic temperament, and the encouragement of his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), that once his creative passion is unleashed, there’s no stopping it. Einar’s female persona is every bit as important to him, and to Gerda, as his much-sought-after paintings. His inner femininity is an expression of his soul.
Strong as Redmayne’s performance is, it’s overshadowed by Vikander’s Gerda. It comes as a shock to her when her husband goes from modeling in a gown for one of her paintings to adopting the name “Lili Elbe” and leading his life as a woman. This especially in light of the fact that compared to Einar’s popularity, Gerda’s own painting career is lackluster — at least until she begins using the enigmatic Lili as her signature model.
In such previous roles as the selfless WWI heroine in Testament of Youth and the sex robot in Ex Machina, Swedish actress Vikander has applied herself ably if unthrillingly to roles that seemed external. Her Gerda Wegener is a different matter entirely, intimate and spontaneous, the picture of the early-20th-century avant-garde. At first baffled, then threatened, then fully settled into acceptance of her husband’s transformation, Gerda stages a transformation of her own — in company with her equally flummoxed friend Hans Axgil (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), and finally on her own terms, as Lili’s devoted helpmate.
Director Hooper coaxes ultra-personal performances out of both his leads, arranging them in a remarkable series of extravagant Beaux-Arts interiors in Copenhagen and Paris (wondrous production design by Eve Stewart). The star-crossed Wegeners are the epitome of liberated artistic lovers, shocking the squares and frightening the horses — except that between themselves, they’re as sweetly tentative as a pair of schoolchildren playing “Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.”