Awards bait movies aren’t inherently good or bad; like any kind of movie, they can either be done well or not. But when a movie’s purpose and aim is so plainly exposed, it’s easy for me to go in with eyes rolling, which is, I’m ashamed to admit, what happened with The Danish Girl. Completely divorced from the content or words I’d read about the movie, the fact that it was directed by and starring people (Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne, respectively) who recently won Oscars I felt were largely undeserved—and looked to be doing the same kind of “prestige” tour—made me not want to like it. The trouble is, it’s a very, very good movie, so I can’t be too huffy about it. I can, however, say that neither of those two are the reason it ultimately works.
Based on the book of the same name by author David Eberschoff, the script for The Danish Girl was deftly written by Lucinda Coxon. It’s a tough balance to try to strike, being the story of a transgender woman in the days before such things were seen as anything beyond a form of insanity. But Coxon does the smart thing and make it about the transition of both this person and the transition of the relationship she had with the woman she’d married during her time living as a man. It’s this relationship, and the part of the wife, that I feel really makes the movie something to watch.
Redmayne plays 1920s landscape artist Lili Elbe, who was born and lived most of her life as a man named Einar Wegener, but who always identified as a woman, just without the ability to explain it. Wegener’s wife Gerde (Alicia Vikander) is a portrait artist who can’t catch a break the way her husband has. One day, Gerde needs a model to finish a portrait of a woman and asks Einar to wear the stockings and shoes and hold the dress and this begins to awaken something within. Later, for fun, Gerde convinces Einar to dress as a woman named Lili and accompany her to a function. It’s from there that Lili’s true feelings begin to show, and more and more of her time begins to be spent as Lili—even going so far as to refer to Einar as someone else completely.
This is, as you might guess, is rather taxing for a marriage, but it leads to a series of portraits of Lili done by Gerde that make her an international sensation. Still, there’s a definite strain, and it’s this—and specifically Vikander’s performance—that I think singles this film out. She has to be so strong and loving and supportive and abundantly understanding, in 1920s in Denmark of all places, while having to realizeher marriage and the man she thought she married were not what they appeared. The relationship between Gerde and Lili is wonderfully complex, and the love they share for each other comes across as very true, despite what that love now means. Vikander is a true talent.
Which leads me down the complaint road. I didn’t think Redmayne deserved an Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. He was good, but he’s certainly better in The Danish Girl. But that makes me even more annoyed, because he’s playing a remarkably similar type of role—the flashier, the showier, the more physically distinct transformation—when it’s really Vikander who should receive the accolades. Make no mistake: Redmayne gives a very good performance as Lili Elbe. I won’t take that away from him. But I never get the sense that he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body rather than an actor acting on an acting screen.
I hope everybody sees this movie, because it is very well done, but I hope people recognize Vikander’s more low key performance is the one that ought to be rewarded this season, because it’s incredibly deep and nuanced.
The Danish Girl opens in select cities November 27 and opens wide in December.
Image: Focus Features
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!