When’s it out? 1st January 2016
Who’s in it? Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sebastian Koch
What’s the rating? 15, for sexualised scenes
Worth seeing? Yes, definitely
Watch out for… Issues around gender, sexuality, identity, and marriage. Key questions are what it means to be true to yourself, and how to love someone through times of change.
I was lucky enough to attend a preview of the upcoming biopic The Danish Girl, which will be released in January. The film tells the true story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, a Danish artist who became one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery in the 1930s.
Einar (Eddie Redmayne) is happily married to fellow artist Gerda (Alicia Vikander) – until one day, modelling women’s clothes for one of his wife’s paintings awakens a repressed side of his identity. Buried within Einar is Lili, and she is about to change both of their lives.
Gerda, who finds success painting portraits of Lili, initially encourages what she sees as a game. But it soon becomes clear that the stakes are far higher than that. Both must come to terms with what it means for Einar to be Lili both in private and in public, leaving her old self and her old life far behind.
I feel as though I’m performing myself. – Lili
The film brings a gentle, compassionate tone to a tragic true story, something which is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, The Danish Girl‘s careful handling of its thorny subject matter will mean that it reaches mainstream audiences; with so few transgender stories getting prominent or empathetic treatment in popular culture, this can only be a good thing. On the other hand, as several critics have noted, the whole thing might just be a bit too polite for its own good. For a film about a deeply unconventional life, it’s surprising how conventional it feels, right down to the handsome period visuals. (Presumably this very respectability is why director Tom Hooper, of Les Miserables and The King’s Speech, was hired.)
There’s much about it to admire, however, in particular two fantastic central performances from Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. As with The Theory of Everything, Redmayne’s role is the showier, allowing him to convey his character’s transformation through shifting body language. But it’s Vikander who really brings the film to life. Since coming to global attention in Anna Karenina (2012) her career has skyrocketed, and deservedly so. Though the script sometimes threatens to relegate her to familiar ‘supportive biopic wife’ territory, Gerda Wegener emerges as a fascinating and fully human character. In fact, the film’s title could refer to either her or Lili: this is Gerda’s story too.
It’s hard for a man to be looked at by a woman. – Gerda
The Danish Girl opens with what seems to be a statement of intent – we see Gerda’s eyes appraising the world, and another character asks her, ‘Don’t you wish you could paint like your husband?’ Later, as a portrait subject sits for her, she comments that men aren’t used to being subjected to the female gaze. But the film isn’t really about what it means to be a woman, either for Gerda or for Lili – it’s about what happens in a relationship when one of the parties begins to change. In this respect, Gerda and Lili’s is a marriage like any other. As Einar disappears, Gerda must mourn the man she fell in love with, and decide how best to love the new person in front of her.
I can’t go on living without knowing who I am. – Lili