Exactly a year ago, I stood in the rain outside of a Toronto movie theater to see Eddie Redmayne give a performance that would ultimately earn him an Academy Award for Best Actor. I feel like I might have done that again Saturday night with his latest transformational turn in The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper’s impeccably made period piece about a Copenhagen artist in the 1920s who was assigned male at birth and later became one of the first people to undergo gender confirmation surgery. I generally don’t like to tread into the Oscar waters, certainly not this early in the game. But that sort of speculation is hard to completely avoid at the Toronto International Film Festival, since it’s become such a crucial whistle stop on awards circuit. Oscar buzz (and the scent of poutine) is in the air. Good luck drowning it out.
Certainly, the timing of Tom Hooper’s film doesn’t hurt either. This has been a watershed year in the struggle for transgender acceptance, with high-profile pop-culture symbols like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and the award-winning series Transparent crossing over into the mainstream. And Hooper’s film, although set in the 1920s, couldn’t feel more topical and zeitgeist-y. Not to mention that there is quite likely a larger, more tolerant audience for The Danish Girl than there would have been just a few years ago.
Great, Chris, that’s all well and good. But how’s the movie? I really liked it. I thought it was beautifully made. It will be talked about. And it will be nominated for a ton of awards like Hooper’s previous film to screen here in Toronto, The King’s Speech. But, in the end, there was a little something missing for me that I’m still trying to put my finger on. Every detail, every costume, every location, every Downton Abbey-ish bit of the score, every scarf-flying-in-the-wind metaphor, and certainly every performance, is note perfect. Yet, there’s something a bit lifeless to all of its perfection. It’s like a movie under glass. It’s beautiful and sensitive and compassionate, and I wish it moved me more.
Based on David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel, The Danish Girl begins by focusing on the loving marriage between landscape artist Einar Wegener (Redmayne) and portrait painter Gerta Wegener (Alicia Vikander). But we soon see hints that there’s more to Einar’s identity than just husband and artist. You can see it in the way Einar subtly caresses Gerta’s silk nightgown during an embrace, or the way Einar gazes at women on the street — not leeringly, but more to study their movements and behavior. Things come to a head when Gerda asks Einar to model for one of her female portraits by putting on stockings and holding a feminine pose. They joke about it, and come up with a name for the alter ego — Lili Elbe. Gerda thinks it’s all fun and games (and maybe a bit kinky), but for Einar, becoming Lili feels like a liberation — a chance to openly be the person she has always been on the inside. The Danish Girl becomes the story of what happens next — how Lili blossoms, how her confused-but-compassionate wife grapples with all of this, and how Lili eventually goes through with the groundbreaking and life-threatening surgery.
I don’t want to say too much about the film now. I feel like I want to let it sink in a little more and maybe see it a second time before I review it closer to its Nov. 27 theatrical release. But one last thing worth mentioning is this: You’re about to hear a lot about Eddie Redmayne’s performance in The Danish Girl. And rightly so. Like his transformation into Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, it’s brilliant. But the film belongs just as much to Alicia Vikander, who is really stunning and extraordinary. With each film the Swedish actress appears in — including turns this year in Ex Machina and Testament of Youth — she manages to conjure something completely different and dazzling and unexpected. If she isn’t already, she’s about to become a big-time movie star.
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