With the 88th Academy Awards less than 3 weeks away, I’ve been amping up my preparations by speeding through all the major nominees. The latest to tick off the list is The Danish Girl, a historical fiction drama about married Danish artists Gerda Wegener and Einar/Lili Elbe (portrayed by Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne), the latter of whom — and this is not a spoiler as it is the premise of the movie and apparent from any trailer or poster — began identifying himself as a woman.
Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl is said to be a very loose adaptation — “inspired by”, if you will — by Gerda and Lili’s story. As the narrative goes, Gerda and Einar were both quite well-known artists living in Copenhagen in the 1920s. It is made plain early on that despite the era they lived in, they were both very liberal and open-minded people unafraid of sexuality and traditional gender barriers. But the lives of this once happily married couple would change forever after Einar discovers that he had been suppressing his desire to be a woman — or that he always felt deep down inside that he was a woman — all his life, thus sparking his journey to becoming Lili.
I don’t know the exact details, but apparently historians are up in arms over the historical inaccuracies and the way the characters and their relationship have been portrayed. So like Steve Jobs, it’s perhaps best to treat the film as a work of fiction that happens to borrow the names of real people.
Inaccuracies aside, The Danish Girl didn’t really do a whole lot for me. I think it’s a good film powered by two outstanding performances, albeit one that is considerably weaker than director Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning The King’s Speech.
The dramatic elements dealing with Lili’s struggles along her journey of discovery and change are well-executed. She’s repressed her true self for so long that once the gates are opened there’s no stopping the internal transformation. However, as an unconventional love story, Lili’s relationship with Gerda felt lacking, primarily because Lili isn’t a particularly likable character. She’s so self-absorbed and is a downright biatch time and time again to Gerda, who, considering the circumstances, was about as supportive and accepting as anyone could have possibly expected. Yes, Lili was going through a lot, but it becomes hard to excuse her behaviour when Gerda’s giving everything and getting nothing but petulance. As a result, the film often made me more angry than sympathetic. I simply couldn’t buy this tale of transcendent, unconditional love the film was trying to sell me (the trailers and promos actually did a better job).
That said, my issues with the movie have nothing to do with the performances of Redmayne and Vikander. I know they almost never hand out Oscars to the same actor in consecutive years, but Eddie Redmayne (who won last year for The Theory of Everything) sure made it very difficult for voters to ignore him with his astounding performance as Lili. Those who have seen Redmayne as himself will know that he’s actually quite a masculine guy, but here he is utterly convincing when dressed up as a woman, and even when he’s dressed up as a man you can sense the femininity through subtle gestures and body language. He conveys Lili’s desires, fears, courage and sensuality to such perfection that he almost makes you forget this.
Alicia Vikander has had a blazing year with Ex Machina and The Man From UNCLE, and now it seems The Danish Girl will be the icing on the cake as she storms towards the Oscars as the favourite to take out the Best Supporting Actress gong. She’s phenomenal as the loving and tormented Gerda, pulling off the adjustment to life-changin challenges with a stoicism that few actresses would have been able to replicate. In fairness, however, I would have nominated her for Ex Machina instead. And yes, she should absolutely have been in the Best Actress category, but I suppose they were looking to maximise her chances by submitting her in the less competitive category. When The Martian can win for Best Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes I guess anything is possible.
At the end of the day, performances alone can’t carry a movie, and while it is a solid effort I enjoyed on several levels, I agree that The Danish Girl isn’t good enough to make the Oscar’s Best Picture nominee list. In some ways it is similar to another high-profile movie released around the same time, Joy, in that both feature strong casts and top-class central performances, are pleasant to look at and have a skilled director at the helm, though these attributes don’t quite propel the films into the elite echelons.
3.5 stars out of 5