When someone is called a “Danish girl” in the new film The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper, it is not Lili Elbe, the trans woman played by Eddie Redmayne. Instead, it is Lili’s wife, Gerda Wegener. So, it’s fitting that I came away from the film fixated on the woman who plays Gerda: Alicia Vikander.
That’s not to say that Redmayne is not wonderful as Lili. The care he put into translating her story to the screen is clear in every moment of his performance (which, incidentally, I found to be superior to his Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawking). In the Q&A following The Danish Girl's Toronto International Film Festival premiere Saturday night, Redmayne talked about the “privilege” he felt playing the role. “What was extraordinary was meeting people from the trans community who were so open and generous with their counsel,” he said. “Every single woman I met, bar none, said, "Ask me anything, anything. The need for cisgender people to understand what trans people are going through is huge and incredibly important.'”
In the film, it's hard not to be completely captivated by Vikander, who is, not surprisingly, already the subject of awards talk. During the Q&A, she and Redmayne both discussed how The Danish Girl is a two-hander.
“I was just sucker-punched by the emotion of it,” Redmayne said of the script. “This idea of two formidable people going on this journey together, and the notion of love not being defined by gender, not being defined by anything but the two souls meeting, really.”
Personally, I fell in love with Gerda in an early scene. She is painting a portrait, and her sitter is visibly nervous. She tells him that it is difficult for a man to sit for a woman. Women, she explains, are used to the male gaze. “For a man to submit to a woman’s gaze is unsettling,” she says slyly. Gerda is funny and playful, and her playfulness helps draw Lili out, as she encourages Lili — who actually, at this point, is still going by Einar — to attend a ball as her true female self. As an artist, Gerda is inspired by Lili. Painting Lili wins her the success in the art world she craved and brings her out of Einar’s artistic shadow. But, she also fears this means she bears responsibility for her spouse’s suffering. Vikander makes Gerda’s heartbreak multifaceted, while still maintaining her ferocious soul.
After seeing the film, I thought about Redmayne's The Theory of Everything, a film that disappointed me. The Theory of Everything professed to be about love and to focus on the spouse as much as the central figure. The happy ending, however, seemed forced, and Felicity Jones still ended up playing second fiddle to Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking.
The comparison is admittedly a tad unfair. The Danish Girl is not a biopic in the traditional sense, given that it is based on a novel about Lili, rather than a nonfiction account of her life. The main similarities between the two films are their historical nature and the fact that Redmayne stars in both. But while The Theory of Everything left me cold, The Danish Girl transfixed me with its idea of how big and beautiful love can be.
While The Danish Girl comes at a time of rising trans visibility, it’s a period piece. About Ray, which is also at TIFF, tells the story of a person transitioning in the present day, but it is a less successful film.
Elle Fanning plays Ray, a trans teen who needs parental consent to begin taking testosterone. Ray’s mother (Naomi Watts), Maggie, has to therefore reconnect with Ray’s absentee father (Tate Donovan), Craig, who turns out to be resistant. It’s a respectful film, but flat performances from all and even flatter dialogue hinder it. Craig’s reluctance is never earned, nor is the skepticism of Ray’s lesbian grandmother (Susan Sarandon), who is mostly used for humor.
While About Ray won't likely have staying power, I expect discussion of The Danish Girl to continue for a good long while.