Movie review: The Danish Girl
How Alicia Vikander’s performance as a wife who loses her husband to another woman proves there’s more to being a female than donning silk frocks and fancy shoes
The Danish Girl
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Running time: 119 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
Now that Alicia Vikander has won her Oscar, I guess it’s safe to say she was the best thing about The Danish Girl.
Her face is a portrait that changes with a subtle brush, moving from stern to serene in a second, but always with a certain stoic strength behind the dark, timeless gaze. Ingrid Bergman had the same ability: a Viking’s power in a few beautifully woven strands of flesh. Vikander used her magic in Ex Machina and Testament of Youth, but it was her turn as Gerda Wegener, a Danish artist and illustrator living around the turn of the last century that gave her the statuette.
No arguments from anyone on that score.
Vikander manages to strip the yellowed layers of melodrama from a period piece about a woman in a near-impossible place. Her husband Einar (Eddie Redmayne) begins to have serious doubts about his gender after he puts on women’s clothing to help his wife with a painting.
The moment the silk fabrics touch his skin, Einar is aroused in a curious way. He fumbles with his sudden burst of feeling, and Gerda gives him the gentle push he needs to fully commit to the disguise.
Her openness to the transformation shows us a playful side, and for the viewer, her continuing warmth takes away the would-be villain: the fearful voice of society embodied by a jealous wife who, on other continents at other times, would threaten to out him and expose him to ridicule and potential incarceration.
Supported by Gerda’s unwavering love, Einar moves deeper into the alter ego of Lili Elbe. He’s obsessed with his other self, and soon, the lines between Einar and Lili begin to blur. The only thing Gerda can do is watch, and paint.
She creates a portrait of Einar as Lili, and dealers who once showed no interest in her work are now intrigued by her “erotica.” She finds success, but she’s starting to lose Einar. Consumed by his desire to be Lili, Einar is entirely unavailable to Gerda. His emotions are swirling inside. He is becoming a she; Einar is becoming Lili.
And Lili, to be totally honest, is a bitch. Selfish, gossipy, hedonistic and shallow, Lili manifests pretty much every single negative trait of what society labels “feminine.” She is the Southern Belle, the pillow queen, the “fetch me a mirror so I can ponder myself for a minute more” diva.
She’s hyperbole. And lost behind that giant facade of femininity is any semblance of genuine, considerate, humanity.
It’s a pity this is what society choses to endorse as “feminine” — and even sadder that it’s the same low-hanging gender fruit that’s come to define the public face of gender transformation, as if being a selfish bitch suddenly makes you a woman.
Maybe I was seeing too much of Caitlyn Jenner’s broad jump in every coquettish twist of Einar’s leg, his love of dressing up and going to the ball, that the poor Danish Girl ended up dragging a cartload of 21st century debris.
To Tom Hooper’s credit, he keeps the scope of the film very narrow, and contains the whole story to Einar and Gerda, and Lili, and on the odd occasion, Ulla the ballerina (Amber Heard) — who gave Lili her name. It’s a small group, and because we’re in this lovely bubble of beautiful people who are capable of love and loyalty, the outside world doesn’t really figure in.
Yet, every shade of empathy and incredulity that encircles the whole gender-transformation topic comes through thanks to Vikander’s elegant strokes of expression. She stands by her man — and her woman — because she saw the person inside.
Her biggest betrayal isn’t that Einar wants to make out with the neighbour, it’s that the person inside isn’t the same person at all. The betrayal is painfully slow, but Vikander makes it tolerable because she never buckles into a ball of self-absorbed mush. She takes it all, and continues to love and support Lili to the very end.
It makes you wish these were the “feminine” traits we celebrated and embraced as the public signifier of female, instead of shoes, makeup and pretty frocks. There’s more to being a woman than playing dress-up, or getting one’s genitals altered, and through some outstanding performances, The Danish Girl proves why.
The Danish Girl is available on home entertainment platforms today.
THE EX-PRESS, February 29, 2016