The term "unconditional love" is one that gets thrown around often, but not one that many of us ever fully understand, mostly because we don't often find ourselves in a position where our love for another is truly put to the test.
A full confession: I was in a relationship once with a complicated man, a very complicated one, and after three and a half years together, I failed the unconditional love test. I no longer knew how to cope with the clinical depression, anxiety, and other host of demons that plagued him - us - on a daily basis. The love remained as strongly as ever; the ability to stay with him did not. I gave it everything, but as it turns out, my "unconditional" was finite.
But in Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl, what it means to love someone unconditionally and to be loved unconditionally, in return, is at the forefront of the story.
After six years of being truly happily married, the woman inside that painter Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) has repressed his entire life is reawakened after he sits in full ballet dress as an emergency replacement model for his wife, fellow artist Gerda (Alicia Vikander). The need to no longer be repressed is intensified when Gerda, wanting to play a game on their stuffy artist colleagues at a yearly ball, insists that Einar dress up as a woman - Lili - to fool everyone. But what starts as merely a game meant to amuse the unconventional couple turns into something far more when Einar realizes he feels more free and comfortable - more himself, or rather, herself - as Lili.
The film deeply explores Lili coming to terms with herself as she transitions away from Einar. But it is just as much the story of Gerda, who undergoes perhaps a more difficult transition than even her wife: In shedding Einar and becoming a woman, Lili gains exactly what it is she's always wanted, but in supporting Lili's transition, Gerda slowly loses the husband that is the love of her life. As someone who has watched the man she loved slowly slip away while simultaneously trying to save him, the quiet, anguish reflected in Vikander's doe eyes as Gerda's self-preservation and selflessness wage war with one another is an internal battle I absolutely empathize with.
Redmayne's transformation from Einar to Lili is done with the utmost sensitivity. The internal struggle plays out not in the dialogue, but in what is not said, in every flickering moment of conflicted yearning and fear on Redmayne's ultra-expressive face. One doesn't always know what to make of Redmayne's strange beauty, but his innate subtlety and depth are on full display here. Personally, I thought this role was even better than last year's Oscar-winning transformation as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.While last year's performance was excellent, it was a technical transformation; the transition into Lili is wholly more vulnerable and open.
Vikander is equally up to the task as Gerda, and she plays the role with equal parts fierce independence and heartbreaking doubt. While there are those who will empathize with Lili as they have experienced or are currently experiencing the same transition, Gerda is the audience surrogate for the majority. Vikander is fearless in the role, brave and selfless in the way that I only wish I could have been and be. I fully expect her to land a Best Actress Oscar nod, as Redmayne will likely earn his second Best Actor nomination in a row. The young actress has been buzzed about in industry and critics' circles for the last year or two, but between Ex Machina and The Danish Girl, 2015 is the year that should put her on the map for a broader audience.
Hooper's longtime collaborator, cinematographer Danny Cohen, and production designer Eve Stewart create a beautifully austere landscape for the eyes. To immerse yourself in the blues and yellows that saturate the scenes in Copenhagen is to step into the paintings of the Danish masters, and while pops of color slowly seep into the film as the setting shifts to Paris and Lili continues to awaken, Cohen's trademark muted color scheme works well here. This is not an expansive story of spectacle, but a quietly intimate one.
The Danish Girl isn't a perfect film, by any means. Criticisms have been made (and rightfully so) that the film glosses over the uglier aspects of being a trans woman in the 1920s, that Lili's transition feels a bit too "easy" as the minor characters in the film are all so supportive and immediately accepting of Lili's transition. Save for a scene that feels slightly forced, in which Lili is beaten up in a park, at no point does she ever really experience true backlash for her decision to transition.
But even this is forgivable. Lucinda Coxon's gentle script put the focus squarely on the love story, and it works. As a viewer, you understand, hopefully, that there were darker moments not touched upon; such an assumption is logical. Yet, I found myself glad for this. I can not speak for trans women, but I can speak as a person who has watched many, many movies and TV series and is growing weary of the "bad people doing bad things" theme that permeates so much of our entertainment now. It was nice to see a movie of good people doing brave things for once.
A week after screening it, I find myself still thinking about The Danish Girl. How it relates to me, how I was in that previous relationship and how I might be stronger in a future one; the nature of "unconditional" love is one I've pondered often. In watching Gerda and Lili together, two simple Danish girls who built a monumental life with one another, I've maybe figured a bit more of it out.
The Danish Girl isn't a perfect film, but it just might be a perfect love story.
The Danish Girl opens in limited release on November 27th.