Eddie Redmayne is a persuasive 'Danish Girl' in Toronto
With the emergence of Caitlin Jenner, the success of Amazon's comedy-drama "Transparent" and this month's festival debuts of Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl, the transgender community is certainly having their moment in 2015. But the Toronto entry The Danish Girl is exceptional because its story takes place nearly 90 years ago, focusing on the first person in history to have sex-reassignment surgery. Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar earlier this year for his virtuoso performance as the physically deteriorating genius Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, undergoes an altogether different but equally striking transformation as Danish painter Einar Wegener, happily married to another talented painter named Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who gradually comes to realize he's always felt like a woman trapped in a man's body.
Apart from Redmayne's presence, there are other parallels to The Theory of Everything: It's the saga of a man struggling with drastic physical and emotional challenges, with a devoted female partner to lend brave and comforting support, and it's the kind of "well-made film" that pundits call Oscar bait. Director Hooper is already the beneficiary of the Oscar-bait strategy with Best Picture and Best Director wins for his engaging but hardly groundbreaking The King's Speech, and The Danish Girl is another handsomely crafted, old-school historical drama that also benefits from the fact that the history it portrays is so damn interesting.
The most surprising aspect of The Danish Girl is its depiction of the initially freewheeling relationship of Einar and Gerda. (Married for 27 years in real life, here they are portrayed as much younger when the life-changing events of the film begin occurring in 1926.) They're a passionate, sexually active couple, and Einar's secret urges are only awakened when Gerda has him don stockings and hold a ballerina's tulle dress against his frame when one of her models fails to arrive. Einar ultimately confides that he enjoys wearing women's garments, and Gerda seems to be turned on by her husband's embrace of his feminine side; she even encourages him, as a lark, to dress as his cousin "Lili" at a major social event. "Lili" is startled and flattered by the male attention she receives, in particular the ardor of a young man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw), whose kiss (witnessed by Greta) reinforces Einar's identification as a female but brings on a sudden nosebleed. In time, Lili asserts herself and Einar finds himself unable to continue the male masquerade that has consumed his existence.
There's been some controversy over the casting of a non-transgender (or cisgender) actor in this landmark role, but here it makes sense, since it's well into the film's running time before Lili overtakes Einar and several scenes explore Einar's fraught relationship with his male body. Redmayne approaches the challenge of this role with great sensitivity, gravity and precision, vividly illustrating the conflict inside Einar and his efforts to outwardly manifest the woman he wants to be. In historical context, Lili's odyssey is a remarkably brave one; Einar is subject to harmful radiation treatments, diagnosed as insane or schizophrenic, and nearly institutionalized. And remember, there was virtually no scientific research to explain or justify the legitimacy of the gender dysphoria Einar/Lili was experiencing. Fortunately, one enlightened, pioneering, sympathetic physician, Dr. Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), was around at the time to suggest a radical (but untried) surgical solution.
As in The Theory of Everything, the remarkable, aptly androgynous Redmayne takes us fully inside a persona and struggle that's alien to most people and makes it compellingly relatable. And matching him every step of the way in this extremely complex portrait of a loving marriage is the feisty, empathetic Vikander. The Danish Girl may be the essence of award-season calculated craft, but in the field of screen depictions of the transgender struggle, it's a milestone.