The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Review: The Danish Girl (UK Cert 15)

The Danish Girl is a sensitive and moving film about one of the world's first transgender pioneers, directed with dignity and respect by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Miserables). 

In 1920s Copenhagen, artists Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) are happily married and trying for a child. When her model is unable to sit, Gerda asks Einar to pose as a woman in order for her to complete the portrait. Something is awakened within Einar and soon- with Gerda's encouragement and help- he creates a female persona, Lili. However, Einar starts to live more as Lili than himself, leading to the realisation that he is transgender and to seek a solution to help him become the person he was meant to be. 

Redmayne is brilliant as Einar/Lili, really selling the emotional confusion of a man who comes to realise he is fundamentally different. You feel for him as he begins to navigate his life and balancing his deep love for Gerda with his own desire to live an authentic life. Vikander is similarly powerful in what could have been a thankless and thinly-written role. Gerda's love for her husband is severely tested and yet she stays with him and helps to support him through his transition. One particularly powerful scene has Gerda asking Lili whether she could see her husband. 

Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts- who started his career playing brutish bruisers in Bullhead and Rust And Bone, but has recently taken a turn into period dramas (Far From The Madding Crowd, A Little Chaos)- gives a good supporting performance as Hans, a Paris art-dealer and childhood friend of Einar who helps to provide emotional support for both him and Gerda throughout. Luckily, the film resists the temptation to form a love triangle between the three characters although it does look like it might at some point. Ben Whishaw is similarly good as Henrik, a young man who falls for Lili.

The film is, thankfully, very respectful and quite matter-of-fact about Lili's transition and it isn't treated sensationally or melodramatically. The widespread ignorance of the medical community of the time- who variously seek to treat Einar for schizophrenia or mental perversion or even seek to lobotomise or institutionalise him- is terrifying but there are some sympathetic and helpful doctors. The risks of gender reassignment surgery at that time (still very much in its infancy) were great and that isn't shied away from either. 

It's a handsome looking film, so cinematographer Danny Cohen and the art and set designers should be applauded - several scenes almost look like paintings in their own right. The costume and make-up design is similarly excellent. 

The film is adapted from a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff which is a fictionalised account of Lili and Gerda's lives, not a biography. Therefore this cannot be taken as a biopic, even though the subjects of the book (and film) were real people. There has been some criticism of the film and book for whitewashing certain facts which are known about the couple, such as Gerda's sexuality and the extent of their relationship once their marriage was annulled. (The Imitation Game faced a similar level of criticism over its presentation of Alan Turing).

When I watched the film, I judged it on what it presented rather than what I found out later. On that basis, I found The Danish Girl to be emotional and powerful and, to be honest, that opinion hasn't changed in the light of what I've later discovered. 

Rating: 4 out of 5


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