I wasn’t exactly on the bandwagon with Eddie Redmayne’s bid for Oscar last year (which he won) with his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”. Not to be a contrarian, but the character felt more polished than the coveted statue it earned him. A fine performance, sure, but if we’re comparing apples to apples, Benedict Cumberbatch should’ve taken the award home for his nuanced portrayal of Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”.
This year, Redmayne is again positioned to woo the Academy in Tom Hooper’s challenging and relevant period drama “The Danish Girl” as history’s first transgender woman, Lili Elbe. This go-around, the notion of his character merely as Oscar fodder quickly fades during a performance that you’d need to be a brick not to be moved by.
We’re introduced to Einar Wegener (Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) as a young power couple in 1920’s Denmark, both of them successful and highly regarded painters though relatively modest by nature. Just as often as they attend extravagant art functions, they spend alone together in the comfort of their Copenhagen studio/flat, so in love that one couldn’t pry them apart. They’re such an inspiration to each other that it’s hardly a stretch when Gerda asks Einar to stand in for one of her female models.
This entails Einar donning stockings and a dress, which he does with apparent hesitation. Affectionately nicknamed Lili by their friend Ulla (a very well-cast Amber Heard), Einar’s alter ego becomes the subject of several of Gerda’s portraits, and eventually starts appearing with Gerda at social events as Einar’s fictitious female cousin.
Gerda thinks it’s just an outrageous ruse, but Einar’s reluctance turns out to be restraint. When Lili is pursued by a young suitor (Ben Winshaw) at a party, Gerda begins to realize that this is no longer a game of dress-up, but the emergence of her husband’s true identity.
“The Danish Girl” tightens its emotional vice grip as the relationship between Einar and Gerda, which at first is good-spirited and playful, becomes strained as Lili–who’s been repressed for most of her life–starts to eclipse Einar. Gerda seeks comfort in aristocrat Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Einar who she hopes might ease some of the psychological turmoil.
The more Lili realizes that she’s surfacing into an unaccepting society, the more heartbreaking Redmayne’s performance becomes. Doctors write Einar off as schizophrenic and “sexually immoral”, and in one unbearably sad instance resort to radiation treatment to vanquish Lili. Not until a progressive physician (Adrian Schiller) eschews popular opinion to understand Lili rather than try to cure her does she have a chance at being herself. (“This is not my body, professor. Please take it away”, she pleas).
Based on the novel by David Ebershoff, Lucinda Coxon’s dense screenplay demands a lot of its two leads, who (miraculously) don’t oversell the unique and increasingly fragile dynamic of their marriage. Redmayne and Vikander are a such a compelling and convincing duo that it’s hardly noticeable that the film is essentially a boilerplate biopic–the drawback of jamming a broad period of history into 120 minutes–though Alexandre Desplat’s powerful score is worth noting. Following her breakthrough role in this year’s “Ex Machina” with a very different, albeit equally challenging character, Vikander shows rare talent as the complex, conflicted but steadfastly loyal leading lady, and even though the film chronicles the genesis of an important movement that only recently has truly begun to evolve, it’s unconditional love that “The Danish Girl” is really about.