Last year, Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Where that film could have been a very straightforward biopic, it ended up being one of this generation’s best unconventional love stories. The Danish Girl is another beautifully told love story with a profound performance from Redmayne at its core. The film further demonstrates that he’s one of the most gifted young actors of our generation. Let’s just pretend Jupiter Ascending never happened.
Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, an accomplished painter in the 1920s. He has a loving relationship with his wife Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), an aspiring artist. One day, Gerda has Einar stand in for a female model. Eventually, Einar starts going in full drag and adopts an alter ego named Lili. Gerda sees this as a joke at first, but it turns out this is more than just dress up for Einar. All his life, Einar has felt like a woman trapped inside a man’s body. Now that his inner woman has been awakened, he can’t repress her any longer.
Just as he did as Stephen Hawking, Redmayne manages to get so much across without even opening his mouth. As Einar, we see all of his character’s pain and torment. As Lili, we see all of his character’s joy and warmth. Redmayne gives his whole body to the role and never feels anything short of completely authentic. Watching him will break your heart and leave you feeling empowered at the same time.
While Redmayne is transcendent, Vikander is just as astounding. She’s also given a dozen different balls to juggle as Einar’s/Lili’s wife. Gerda wants her husband to be happy, although that would mean sacrificing the man she loves. Matters get progressively complicated as Einar insists on becoming Lili permanently and Gerda finds herself growing closer to Matthias Schoenaerts’ Hans Axgil. In an Academy Award caliber performance, Vikander encompasses a remarkable range of emotions, from sorrow, to confusion, to regret, to loss, to understanding, to supportive, to relieved. Between Ex Machina and now this, she’s solidified her place as this year’s breakthrough actress.
We’ve been getting a number of movies and television shows lately about sexual identity and gender identity. Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Kaitlin Jenner in particular has captivated the world. With The Danish Girl, director Tom Hooper has made one of the most significant films regarding this subject matter. Coming out is a brave thing for any closeted person to do. Considering that transgender individuals were considered mentally insane in the early 1900s, however, Einar/Lili was especially courageous in taking the first step forward.
The Danish Girl works up to a powerful third act in which Einar/Lili is given the option to become the first man to undergo a sex reassignment surgery. With sex changes being untested and virtually unheard of, the odds of survival aren’t high. For our central character, though, it’s better to be in the right body for a short period than to spend a long life in the wrong birthday suit.