Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” was a rare opportunity for an actor. Seldom does a part create such massive physical and emotional demands. Such roles don’t come along every day.
But for Redmayne, they have come along in back-to-back years. His work in “The Danish Girl” is in its own way equally as challenging physically and emotionally for the British actor. And, he responds with the same high-level performance that won him an Oscar for “Theory.”
“The Danish Girl” is based on the true story of artist Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe, a Danish transgender woman and one of the first people recognized for having sex reassignment surgery in the early 1930s. Unlike today, the emotional and physical journey of the artist is not treated with any understanding except for Lili’s wife Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander).
Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay, based on the novel by David Ebershoff, follows Lili from her first public expression of her true sexuality through the medical procedures she needs so desperately to feel like her whole self. Despite unimaginable risks, Lili knew this was a course she had to take.
The complexity of this role could have fallen apart quite quickly in the wrong hands. A single misstep and it could have come across as campy or too melancholy. Just the early public awakenings by Lili required a delicate touch to get across the new feelings of freedom she feels.
Redmayne finds a beautiful way of playing the character that is sold with a slight touch of the hand or a minor change in voice tenor. His superb acting skills allow him to make Lili feel like a real person and not the draping an actor has put on to fool the audience.
It’s easy to look at a role like this one, or even playing Stephen Hawking, and get distracted by the outward appearance of the characters. Redmayne has a great skill at being able to make the audience look deeper.
Just as in “The Theory of Everything,” where Felicity Jones’ performance as Jane Hawking was so critical in making Redmayne’s performance work, Alicia Vikander is the key to his portrayal in “The Danish Girl.” Both actresses become so emotionally connected to their roles that we are naturally drawn into their feelings of support and frustration.
Vikander is particularly amazing, having the difficult role of giving the audience an entryway to the story despite it unfolding in a world that is not even a fraction as understanding or supportive as today. She’s a marvelous actress who’s becoming a major force in film.
It will be easier for the Academy Awards to want to honor Redmayne because his role is easier to gauge. But Vikander’s work should not be overlooked at Oscar time. The depth of the emotions she plays is award-worthy.
The weakness in “The Danish Girl” is the script by Coxon. Too much time is spent watching Lili go through her physical transformation and not enough setting up the world. The lack of tolerance for anyone who didn’t match what society considered to be part of the norm should have been explored more to put Lili’s journey in better context.
Redmayne and Vikander are wonderful together, but the real power ends at the door to their apartment. More of a push by director Tom Hooper to place this story in the real world where it unfolded would have added to the power. But that doesn’t distract from the two memorable acting performances by Redmayne and Vikander.