By: Muneeb Arshid
There have been many a “star-in-the-making” in terms of one’s acting output in their breakout year, but Alicia Vikander and her films in 2015 may just be the best example of someone already on the cusp of stardom at the conclusion of said year. She started as a period drama actor starring in a career-making role in A Royal Affair, where she had to learn an entirely new language for her lead role. That was back in 2011; in between then and 2015, she’s had minor roles that have kept her entrenched in the minds of casting directors.
Which brings us to 2015, where Vikander starred in three films, the brilliant Ex Machina, the wonderfully fun Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the Oscar-baity The Danish Girl. Three performances that couldn’t be more different from each other, yet all three allow Vikander to showcase the versatility in her acting that will make her a major force in Hollywood.
Which brings us to the aforementioned Danish Girl directed by Oscar-winner Tom Hooper and which stars Eddie Redmayne along with the above-mentioned Vikander. This is the story of Einar and Gerda Wegener, who partake in this story of transformation where Einar takes on his female persona head-on and transforms into Lili Elbe. The story revolves around the effects that Einar’s transformation had on not only Einar/Lili but on Gerda as to a greater degree. All the press leading up to the Oscar race will be about Redmayne and his seemingly flawless transformation from man to woman for this role, and deservedly so. However, his role is slightly muted emotionally when compared to the performance given by the now Oscar-nominated Vikander. Even though this is the story of Lili Elbe, we are watching the film progress through the eyes of Gerda and how everything is affecting her social life. At one point in the film, Gerda says to Einar/Lili that “not everything is about you”, and as the viewer, that is exactly what you’re left thinking. The emotional heft in Vikander’s performance is what keeps this film grounded. Without Vikander, there could’ve been a feeling of “why should I watch this/why should I care for this character”. There isn’t a sense of danger that Lili feels when in public, which could’ve been a story point had it been set in a more conservative setting like the USA. It’s just the time period (the late 1920s) and the fact that transgenderism was not the norm at the time which lends a hand in developing that sense of doubt in Einar’s mind.
However, the plot of the film doesn’t necessarily lead to the struggles that Lili had in her life. In the first act of the film, there are very few indications that Einar is having a gender struggle with himself. Both he and Gerda seem to be a very happy, very witty, young couple, enjoying their life together. If anything, it’s Gerda who isn’t particularly happy in terms of her painting career but ultimately finds solace in Einar. The contrivance comes when Einar is needed at a gala and doesn’t want to go, which is when they decide that a new persona might help him and thus the initial transformation to Lili. It’s after this gala where things get personal between Lili and a prospective partner that cause tension between Einar and Gerda at home. There are many stories around the world that show that those people who are transgender tended to have some sort of a notion beforehand about their “real” gender. The Danish Girl doesn’t show that right away but depicts Einar’s identity crisis after he dresses up as Lili for this gala.
As was pointed earlier, Vikander’s performance as Gerda is the emotional touching point for viewers. She is the person directly affected by Lili; watching as she loses her husband day-by-day and being able to do nothing about it. This despite the fact that the presence of Lili has rejuvenated her painting career and made her more successful than she probably ever thought. The writing of her character must be commended because there is no ugly vendetta that she partakes in; instead, she accepts that she is never going to see Einar again and becomes the support for Lili in her time of crisis. Which brings us to Redmayne, and much like his Oscar-winning performance from 2014 in The Theory of Everything with his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, we get yet another performance where Redmayne is transforming himself throughout the movie. In The Theory of Everything, it was the transformation as he battled a motor neuron disease and how it belittled his body. In The Danish Girl it is a transformation from man to woman, but with one key difference between the roles: you actually liked and felt sorry for the character in the former film, less so in the latter. With The Danish Girl, it could simply be a matter of the writing; but as great as Vikander’s role was written, Redmayne’s role was missing that special quality that would’ve made it look very showy considering the characters that he was assuming. There isn’t a lot of heft to the character that makes you think “why should I care” until late in the film when Lili is getting the surgeries completed for sex reassignment. That’s the point when the film forces emotion from that character but it’s too late because there hasn’t been any emotional engagement beforehand. The real emotion is still felt with Gerda at that point because the surgeries are a confirmation that she has lost Einar forever, and for the time being is feeling very alone.
Director Tom Hooper has recently become a prominent face during Oscar season with films such as Les Misérable and the Best Picture-winning, The King’s Speech. Les Misérable was the first musical to be nominated for Best Picture since the Oscar-winning Chicago in 2002. Then there was The King’s Speech, the movie that caused the OAP (Brits will get this) to flock to the theatres back in 2010. The problem that I have with Hooper’s films recently have been that he’s not very shy in showcasing them as Oscar bait films. That was never more evident than when watching The Danish Girl. Even though Colin Firth was great in The King’s Speech, there is no doubt in my mind that it should not have won Best Picture back in 2011. The contending list going against that movie was very strong, with the likes of Inception, Black Swan, The Fighter and even Toy Story 3. However, Hooper was able to pander to the Academy voters with the style of the film, making it very artsy and having a plot which surrounded the English monarchy (yay!). With The Danish Girl, he’s essentially just upped the art (literally!) and tried to showcase it as a coming out story of the ages, but it hasn’t worked out for him this time.
Both the cinematography and the costume design complement each other very nicely and are two aspects of this film that stand out along with Vikander’s performance. There is a very classical tone to the colour palate which complements the extremely neutral colours of mid-20th century Europe. The costume design is also very gorgeous with colours used for the dresses that make them pop against the aforementioned backdrop. In terms of period dramas, it has one of the best overall looks to a film, apart from Carol, which we will review later this week.
There is a question of who the titular Danish Girl is. In my mind, there is absolutely no doubt that this film is about Gerda (Vikander) and not Einar/Lili. The way the story is told with a focus on Gerda and how her life is being affected and more importantly, her being the character that the audience will latch onto goes to show that Gerda is “The Danish Girl”. Ultimately, The Danish Girl tries its hardest to pander to the Academy voters who have been loyal to director Tom Hooper in the past. There are aspects of this film that work, most notably the performance given by Vikander, but it does fall flat in other areas which eventually brings the film’s grade down.
The Danish Girl gets a very average and Oscar-baity grade of C+ (6.8/10).