September 13, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “The Danish Girl”


Transgender issues have been such hot-button topics in the news lately that people may not be prepared for how muted and delicate Tom Hooper’s THE DANISH GIRL is.  The film, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival and then screened at Toronto, before beginning a quest for awards later in the year, barely deals with politics at all, keeping a very tight focus on the psychology of a specific true-life story.

In 1920s Denmark, the successful painter Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his beautiful, loving wife and fellow painter Gerda (Alicia Vikander) introduced a bit of gender fluidity into their sex play, creating an alter ego for Einar they named Lili.  For Gerda, this was merely an amusement, but for Einar it set to a boil feelings he’d been having–and repressing–since he was a child.  This led him to be the subject of one of the first gender-reassignment surgeries ever performed.

Hooper’s film, from a script by Lucinda Coxon (based on a novel by David Ebershoff that was inspired by Lili’s actual diaries), is concerned mostly with the increasingly complex relationship between Einar/Lili and Gerda.  She is immensely supportive, especially considering the era, but there are other layers that arise from the emergence of Lili as well.  Gerda had been considerably less successful than her husband as a painter–until she began painting portraits of Lili, which brought her fame in Paris.  Then Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), a friend of Einar’s from childhood (and the first, essentially, to have met Lili) comes into both their lives.  Lili has to calibrate her feelings for Gerda, Hans and for Henrik (Ben Whishaw), a gay man Lili encounters in Denmark.  Meanwhile, the existence of Lili is treated by the Danish medical authorities as a perversion and a sign of madness.

There’s a great deal going on in The Danish Girl, but most of it happens very quietly, with only a few characters other than the central four (notably a flirtatious dancer played by Amber Heard who’s Gerda’s best friend, and Sebastian Koch as the doctor who offers Lili a surgical solution to her situation).  A fair amount of the action takes place in Einar and Gerda’s sparse Denmark apartment.  Although there are obviously parallels between Einar/Lili’s experiences and those of contemporary transgenders, this isn’t an activist movie, or a historical crowd-pleaser of the order of Hooper’s The King’s Speech.

With such restraint as a key element of the film, almost everything rests on the two stars.  It will come as no surprise to anyone who saw The Theory of Everything that Redmayne’s performance is physically exquisite.  There’s nothing drag queeny about Lili, even when Einar is just playing dress-up at the start; the performance segues movingly from psychological confusion to agony to joy.  Vikander for the first time justifies the It Girl hype that’s been coming her way for the last few years, matching Redmayne beat for beat, and able to create an independent, conflicted woman who exists as an individual, rather than just as an accessory to his character.

Hooper, working with a technical team he’s been with for years (cinematographer Danny Cohen, production designer Eve Stewart, editor Melanie Oliver, composer Alexandre Desplat), films with great assurance, if few dramatic pyrotechnics.  It’s a lovely film in a very low key, a comparative whisper against the headlines of the day.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."