The Danish Girl (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Danish Girl,” directed by Tom Hooper, is a classy, heartfelt, and beautifully told story about a person, biologically male, who is born in the wrong body. For a subject that many people at this time may find difficult to understand, let alone connect with, the film has the courage to respect the audience and its subject by telling this specific story without sensationalism. It is spearheaded by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander’s first-rate performances who play Einar Wegener and Gerda Wegener, respectively, married painters in 1920s Denmark. He specializes in landscapes while she excels in portraits.
The film is most effective during long takes. Notice how it takes its time to allow us to settle into a scene by aiding us to carefully observe the characters move and speak. This is accomplished by employing confident still shots, well-calculated close-ups, and minimal score. Such scenes are allowed to breathe, too. For instance, when a paintbrush dances on a canvas, we hear the bristles move. Sometimes it is soft and calming. But there are times when it is intense and cross.
It is very important that the work gets the look, mood, and tone exactly right not only because it is a period drama. Given that the material aspires to capture a complex subject, it is critical that we buy into the reality of the environment which serves as a conduit to the people who live in it. This is most pivotal during scenes when Einar looks at a frock, starts caressing it with his fingertips, and begins to overlay it on his body. If the dress were wrong or if the look of the room where the dress hung looked unconvincing, such intimate moments would likely have been silly or laughable.
It shows the love between the married couple without relying on words to constantly remind us how they feel about one another. This is where Vikander and Redmayne’s instincts as natural performers come in. Like great actors who came before them, they know how to modulate facial expressions just so, beginning with the eyes, to communicate a spectrum of emotions often in one shot. These are highly efficient performances; we get a real impression that Einar, later renamed Lili, and Gerda really have been married for six years and sometimes they know exactly what one is feeling or thinking without having to voice out what they need or want.
The movie is not about gender reassignment surgery although the story gets to that point eventually. Notice that the majority of the two-hour running time is devoted to the unconditional love shared between the painters. The key word is “unconditional” because, in a way, the film indirectly asks the audience what they are willing to do, or give up, for the happiness of the person, or persons, they love.
The beauty of Vikander’s interpretation of the character is that she may not completely understand her husband’s situation but she is willing to skip fully comprehending and actually be present, to be there to offer support and acceptance. This is why “The Danish Girl,” based on the novel by David Ebershoff and loosely based on the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, is a strong statement piece that remains highly relevant today: Too many parents of LGBTQ youths are not willing to find a way around deeply held conventions or beliefs and simply love their children over everything else.