One year after his Oscar-winning portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne turns in the best performance of his career in The Danish Girl, portraying a well-known Danish painter who became one of the first successful recipients of gender reassignment surgery.
The film opens in the 1920s, with Einar Wegener (Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) living as successful artists in Copenhagen. Their relationship is sweet and playful, and their chemistry is palpable – in short, they’re the quintessential “movie couple.” But when the subject of Gerda’s latest portrait (Amber Heard) is running late for a session, she asks Einar to don a set of women’s stockings and ballet shoes to stand in for the model, and everything begins to change.
Einar is embarrassed by the scenario, especially when the couple’s ballet dancer friend arrives and delightedly dubs him “Lili,” but he also finds himself experiencing a not-altogether-unfamiliar sense of longing, as thoughts and feelings he’s been repressing since adolescence begin bubbling to the surface. Before long, Gerda is coming home to find Einar wearing her undergarments, an oddity that she pays little attention to at first. But when she encourages him to accompany a social gathering as his alter-ego, neither of them are prepared for the sort of life-altering events that this decision will lead to.
For the first time, Einar is able to completely shed the facade. He’s not pretending to be Lili – she’s always been there, and it’s actually Einar who was the illusion. It’s a revelation that is both shocking and satisfying, but also immensely complicated, particularly given the homophobia of the time period, not to mention the barbaric methods of “treatment” that physicians would prescribe in an effort to “cure” people of what they considered to be schizophrenia, aberration or perversion.
Redmayne, who had already amassed an impressive body of work before The Danish Girl, is truly outstanding here. He’s all but guaranteed to be in the Oscar race, and voters will be hard pressed to find a more affecting performance this year. But Vikander is arguably even more impressive here, as she struggles to comes to grips with how the emergence of Lili will irrevocably change her relationship with her husband.
Based on a fictionalized account of Lili Elbe’s life written by novelist David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl might play a bit fast and loose with some of the facts, but it’s all in service to the narrative. The type of accuracy the film is striving for is emotional and psychological, not historical, and Redmayne’s powerful, heart-rending depiction of Lili complements director Tom Hooper’s honest approach to the subject matter.