TIFF Review: “The Danish Girl” brings insight to transgender issues in the 1920s

Already generating Oscar-buzz, The Danish Girl offers star Eddie Redmayne another opportunity to showcase his versatility, and gives Alicia Vikander a breakout role.

Adapted from David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name — a fictionalized version of the story of Lili Elbe, the first known person to undergo gender reassignment surgery — The Danish Girl is set in 1920s Copenhagen, during a period when discussions of human sexuality and gender identity were rare. The film centres around Einar Wegener (Redmayne), a successful painter who explores their true gender identity while married to Gerda Wegener (Vikander). Einar later embraces her identity as transgender woman, Lili Elbe, who searches for acceptance and eventually becomes the first person to undergo a life-threatening surgery.

The plot delves into the experiences of Elbe living in a time when trans people were considered “sick” by the medical field and society. The film handles the topic with care and respect, surrounding Elbe with characters that are supportive and loving. While Elbe faces challenges during her transition, the film does not focus on the torment she experienced, instead opting to portray the nuances of her journey to self-acceptance.

Redmayne is convincing in his performance as Elbe, using his slim features, crinkling eyes, and hushed tones. He embodies her with slow feathered touches, gentle movements and shy smiles. It makes for a subtle, yet powerful performance to convey the emotions of self-conflicting struggles that Elbe goes through during her transition.  

Vikander gives a scene-stealing performance as a supporting wife and friend to Elbe. With great roles this year in Ex Machina and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Vikander more than proves herself here. With the role of Gerda, she shines dramatically as a painter trying to succeed in the art industry while coping with the changes in her life and marriage. Her portrayal never gives the impression that she doesn’t genuinely care for Elbe, even when it means that she loses Einar. She goes from loving wife to an accepting friend and partner, always there to hold Elbe’s hand through tough and confusing moments. An alluring and confident performance by Vikander that will surely earn many nominations in the upcoming awards season.

The film is an intricate and emotion-driven narrative. Tom Hooper’s directing style is evident, with close-ups and unique framing. The story is sure to move viewers. With scenes of Einar emulating a woman’s delicate movements, or shots of Einar gently caressing the fabric of dresses and stockings, you’re able to witness Elbe’s self-discovery through her eyes.  

During an important time for transgender rights, The Danish Girl comes at the perfect moment. However, Redmayne is still a cisgender actor playing a transgender woman, but the film attempts to provide viewers with a sense of awareness and perspective. The film proves to be worth watching for the sake of opening up our eyes to the challenges that transgender individuals face.

Featured image from YouTube