The Danish Girl, film review: Eddie Redmayne is a woman of substance

 (15) Tom Hooper, 120 mins. Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts

Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl is a subtle and extraordinarily well-crafted film but one that pulls continually in different directions. Hooper is telling a radical story in a strait-laced fashion. This is an upscale period drama in which loving attention has been paid to costume and production design. Its subject matter, though, is raw and unsettling. The main character is Lili Elbe, the artist "whose brave and pioneering spirit remain an inspiration for today's transgender movement", but who, in the course of the movie, endures extreme trauma.

Like Hooper's Oscar-winning film The King's Speech, The Danish Girl features a repressed husband with a very supportive wife trying to transform and free himself. This time, it's not a case of simply overcoming a stammer but of the husband living life as a woman.

Largely set in 1920s Copenhagen, the film begins in deceptively light-hearted fashion but becomes ever darker and more complex. It boasts very fine central performances both from Eddie Redmayne as the transgender artist and from Alicia Vikander as his/her devoted wife.

As first encountered, Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a successful young landscape painter. He lives a carefree, bohemian life in the apartment he shares with Gerda (Vikander) and their pet Jack Russell. "When are you two going to breed me a godchild," their ballet dancer friend Ulla (Amber Heard) asks him. The only slight cloud in an otherwise idyllic marriage comes from Gerda's lack of professional success. The same gallery owners who fawn on Einar dismiss her portraits as too conventional.

Lucinda Coxon's screenplay is as much a study of a marriage as it is one of sexuality and identity. The film comes steeped in irony. Einar's quest for change brings husband and wife closer together at the same time that it risks destroying their marriage. There are moments when their identities (like those of the two women in Ingmar Bergman's Persona) seem to be merging. "Marriage creates someone else, more than just the two of you," it is observed of the couple. Gerda, reminiscing of how she first fell in love with Einar, says, "It was the strangest thing, it was like kissing myself."

Even before Gerda asks Einar to put on a ballet dress so that she can finish a Degas-like portrait of a young dancer, we see Einar backstage at the theatre, lovingly caressing the fur costumes and gazing in rapture at Ulla as she rehearses.

At first, Einar's decision to reinvent himself as Lili seems like a game. Gerda is his co-conspirator as he dresses up in wig and stockings, applies the lipstick and attends an art club ball. He studies the women around him with an anthropological fascination, paying particular attention to their ankles and to the way they move their hands. His Lili is like a nervous young swan with his head tilted downward, his long neck always visible, his fingers fluttering and a shy smile on his face.

It quickly becomes apparent that this is not just a case of an artist dressing in drag and exploring his feminine side. There is a very strange scene not long after Lili kisses Henrik (Ben Whishaw), the young bohemian who takes such an interest in her. She suddenly has a violent nose bleed. Lili's nose bleeds, we later learn, "coincide with stomach cramps on a monthly basis".

In a later scene, we see Einar looking at himself naked in the mirror, trying to hide his penis between his legs.

The film is about Lili's "transition", the process (the production notes tell us) that "trans people undertake to bring their body and their gender expression into alignment with their inner gender identity". This is no easy switch. Many doctors consider Lili to be a freak. They regard her behaviour as a result of either a chemical imbalance or "aberrant thinking." She is diagnosed as schizophrenic and threatened with incarceration. She is beaten up by homophobic thugs.

When Lili is given the chance for sex-reassignment surgery ("this is not my body, professor, please take it away"), she is told that the two operations needed to make him fully a woman have a high risk of "failure, infections, complications".

What makes Redmayne's performance so exceptional is the way he captures both Lili's terror and her stubborn bravery. Some of the actor's gestures seem very mannered but we are always aware of the intelligence and feelings that are driving Lili. In being so honest to her own nature, she is destroying the comfortable life that Einar and Gerda enjoyed as a married couple.

Gerda was the one who first asked Einar to pose in women's clothes. She thereby helped bring Lili to life. As her husband disappears in front of her ("there is so little of Einar left"), she finally finds a subject for her art. Gerda stops painting conventional society portraits and makes Lili her main model. Her pictures of Lili are striking and original. They capture the imaginations of the gallery owners and collectors who used to ignore her.

The Danish Girl is a disconcerting film to watch. In many ways, this is the boldest movie that Tom Hooper has made. It has a depth of characterisation that goes way beyond anything found in The Damned United or The King's Speech. At the same time, there is no prospect of a happy, cathartic outcome here – one reason why the film makes such downbeat and, occasionally, such depressing viewing. Its sumptuous visual qualities and extravagant production values give us the sense that we are watching one of those upscale costume dramas that the British excel at.

Some of the visual gambits here – the sequence of Lili's scarf floating on the wind like a kite or the lovingly detailed shots of Danish landscapes that mirror those found in Einar's paintings – seem trite and evasive. The picture-postcard beauty of the imagery is in stark contrast to a storyline, which, for all Lili's courage and determination to find her true self, is often bleak in the extreme.

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