Pssst. I need to tell you some truth… I’m starting to loathe biopics.
I’m starting to loathe the formulaic story arc that hits its head on every heartfelt beat from childhood to death. I’m starting to loathe everyone acting their little hearts out shouting, “Oscar, it’s my year!”
But you know what I don’t loathe? The Danish Girl.
The Danish Girl works. Tom Hooper, Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander et al, I tip my proverbial hat to you. Thank you for making a biopic that challenges Hollywood to raise the bar and reinvent this tired, overdone genre.
The Danish Girl tells the story of of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe and their wife Gerda Wegener. Elbe was a Danish transgender woman and one of the first recorded women to undergo gender reassignment surgery. However, it also tells the poignant love story between Einar/Lili and Gerda.
Screenwriter Victoria Coxon and Director Tom Hooper concentrate almost exclusively on these two characters, and the most compelling parts of the film are when we spend time with Einar and Gerda or Lili and Gerda in their bohemian studios. There we witness Einar/Lili’s emotional vulnerability through their transition. We also see their desire and realise that they are, and have always been, Lili. We watch Gerda struggle with trying to have a life of her own and the guilt she feels for feeling distanced from Einar/Lili. Unlike most biopics, the film takes more liberties and allows for a bit of fiction. It spends less time on the moments that might have made these characters famous and focuses more on the inbetween. The moments that perhaps no one else could see.
Speaking of something no one else seems to see, The Danish Girl understands female characters better than a lot of acclaimed biopics. Though the film has a through line of focusing on Einar/Lili’s transition, The Danish Girl does not leave Gerda waiting in the wings as a dutiful wife/confidante with nothing to do. (Films like last year’s The Imitation Game, or this year’s Steve Jobs are two recent examples of what not to do.) Gerda is complicated. She has her own stakes and conflict. She is faced with the difficult decision of whether to stay with Lili. She grapples with the desire for success when her partner is dealing with doctors deeming them mentally ill. She deals with temptation from another man once she realizes that she can never truly be with who she wants – Einar. The film lets Gerda tell her side, which only adds richness and complexity to the narrative.
Undoubtedly linked to the presence of a strong female character is the restrained, meaningful acting between Redmayne and Vikander. We’ve seen Redmayne before and he is no doubt an incredible talent, but there is a chemistry and intimacy in this film you don’t see in his other work such as The Theory of Everything. Felicity Jones is incredible, yet Vikander electrifies with a well-written character that allows her to show off her enormous skill.
Redmayne and Vikander are dancing an intricate, beautiful dance the whole film. If you’ve ever been in love, you can tell they are doing it right. They understand the nuances, the deep friendship, and the light heartedness of love. They also understand the pain when love is just is not enough to overcome all obstacles. Each move they make is deliberate and yet so slight you almost miss it.
Commendably, Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili seems to understand the male gaze. With slight glances and nervous smiles, Lili is different than Einar. Lili is a new woman trying to navigate society, with her own hopes, dreams and insecurities. Playing a transgender character is no small task for a cisgender male to take on, however, Redmayne felt respectful and honest in his portrayal.
When you’re sitting in the theatre you will be quietly weeping, thinking, ‘this is really beautiful.’ The cinematography is airy and effortless yet moody enough to allow for the darker moments of the film – one scene in a dress shop is memorably filmed by using tulle to frame the characters in a dreamlike haze. The set design for Einar/Lili and Gerda’s bohemian artist studios in Copenhagen and Paris make you want to move in immediately, and the 1920s costumes are full of intricate patterns and beautiful craftsmanship. Tom Hooper’s vision is executed with the utmost craft and care.
The Danish Girl brings life to the mudanity of biopics. Its attention to detail and focus on making every character complex and dynamic, harkens back to honest, character-based storytelling. Hollywood, take note.