3 stars (out of 4)
A year ago, nobody would have guessed that the man then known as Bruce Jenner would have anything in common with a prestigious period drama starring Eddie Redmayne.
But now we call her Caitlyn. And it’s impossible to not think of her — and her groundbreaking transgender journey — while watching the true story of the first man to undergo a sex-change operation. Titled The Danish Girl, the film premiered Sept. 12 at the Toronto International Film Festival. And despite some flaws, prepare to hear lots more about it (and its social relevance) come Oscar season. (The biopic, based on his memoir, opens Nov. 27).
Redmayne is Einar Wegener, a successful painter living in Copenhagen in 1926. Soft-spoken and shy, he’s weighed down by a secret curiosity: What it would be like to dress and live as a woman. When his loving wife Gerda (the luminous Alicia Vikander) asks him to sit in and model as a female for one of her paintings, his breath quickens just touching the fabric of the panty hose.
At first, Gerda believes his penchant for looking more feminine is a titillating game. She even applies makeup on him and gets turned on when he wears her satin nightgown to bed. (Playful or no, this interaction could have used more heft. It’s hard to swallow that this pristine woman is so blasé about her husband wearing eyeliner. He’s not in an ‘80s hair-metal band.) Together, they give Einar an alter ego, name her Lili, and take her out on the town. If anyone asks, she’s Einar’s cousin.
Their dynamic changes after she catches him kissing a man at a party. And in the privacy of their own home, he’s increasingly reluctant to wear suits and live as Einar. He doesn’t just want to live as Lili . . . he wants to be her. All the time. To Gerda, this change isn’t just confounding — it’s certifiably insane. A doctor even implores that this desire to be a woman is due to a “chemical imbalance.” Another believes that he is schizophrenic. Watching yet another doctor talk to Einar about a lobotomy option, you can’t help but meditate that it has indeed gotten better since 1926 — to an extent, anyway. (Lili gets bullied for her looks).
This is a well-constructed film, no doubt. Yet Einar’s emotional torment is handled too tastefully. This man is getting his penis surgically removed, not deciding on which flavor of tea to drink in the morning! Director Tom Hooper helms this provocative subject matter with the same stately and beautiful manner as his most recent efforts The King’s Speech and Les Miserables. Just from the austere and meticulous aesthetic of the film, Redmayne might as well be wooing Amanda Seyfried in Paris all over again. (Just no singing this time). An arthouse film involving art doesn’t have to feel as cold as a sculpture.
Not to say Redmayne and Vikander don’t give it meaningful life. The reigning Best Actor winner spent the better part of a year preparing for the role, according to Hooper, and it shows. Sure he’s able to turn his body into a lithe, delicate figure. More impressive, he shows the transformation in his eyes. As Einar, they look hollow; as Lili, they twinkle. In the most indelible scene, he strips bare in his wife’s mirror and tucks his penis behind his legs. That single look of awe and contentment is a remarkable wonder. It Girl Vikander stuns as his conflicted spouse. She desperately wants this to be a phase, hoping every day he’ll revert to Einar. But she never wavers in her love. When she finally escorts him to a doctor for reassignment surgery in 1931, her unconditional support is nothing short of heroic.
In an emotionally stunted script, these actors deliver heart and soul. And for their efforts, like Jenner before them, they might even bring home the gold.
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