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Review: The Danish Girl

March 2, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The Danish Girl PosterFor a variety of circumstances, The Danish Girl is one of those films that has kept eluding me over the last few months.  Every time I would try to go see it, something else would come up.  So by the time I finally caught up with it last night, Alicia Vikander had already won a highly deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and I’ve already heard many different reactions to the film itself.

But my overwhelming feeling after watching The Danish Girl, which was just released to the home entertainment market this week, was that I wish I had made the effort to see it earlier.  This is a film that kept me completely engaged throughout its emotional and captivating two hour running time, and almost caught me off guard with how much I responded to it.

The film recounts the true story of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), an acclaimed landscape artist in Denmark who was was born as Einar Wegener, and became the first person to receive gender confirmation surgery when transitioning to female in 1931, with the support of wife and fellow painter Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander).  At first, it starts as a game between the two, when Gerda asks her husband to wear a dress and stockings so she can paint the female form.  But this awakens long buried feelings of body dysphoria within Einar, who tentatively starts the process of living as a woman, allowing the identity of Lili to emerge.

Tom Hooper directs this all with a tasteful eye, authentically capturing period details through sumptuous cinematography.  The beautifully crafted and gorgeously lit sets recall the paintings of the time, and the excellent performances bring even greater depth to the material.  A year after winning an Oscar for his remarkable portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne undergoes another mesmerizing transformation for this role, as his character learns to move with a more feminine gait, disappearing behind a wig and makeup.  But what makes his performance transcend more than just the clothes, is the way the actor portrays Lili’s emotional awakening throughout the story.

Alicia Vikander delivers equally powerful work, beautifully portraying Gerda’s process of coming to accept her partner’s true identity, remaining completely supportive of Lili, even as she grieves the changes in their marriage.  It’s a nuanced and subtly affective performance that is every bit as impressive as Eddie Redmayne’s physical transformation, and the two elevate each other with poignant chemistry.  The young actress had a stellar year in 2015, also bringing haunting life to the artificial intelligence of Ex Machina, and her Oscar recognition for The Danish Girl is all the more deserved because of it.

This is a genuinely moving story of self discovery, and the truly courageous process of being able to finally live as the person you always felt you should be, especially at a time when society was anything but accepting, and many doctors still levelled accusations of insanity against people who identified differently than the gender they were assigned at birth.  Beautifully crafted and brilliantly performed, The Danish Girl is is a period drama that feels old fashioned in the best possible way, but has the importance and emotional resonance of right now.

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