Monday, January 4, 2016


Eddie Redmayne was on the set of Les Misérables seeking out director Tom Hooper, but it wasn't to talk empty chairs at empty tables. Instead he had another story on his mind. The day before, Hooper had given Redmayne a script to look over – the director was attached to a movie about Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery, and wondered if Redmayne was interested. “He came back the next morning and said, "oh my god, this is fantastic! When do we start?" remembers Hooper, smiling. "When do we start?" was a question Gail Mutrux, the producer, had been asking for fifteen years. Now Redmayne was about to find out what Tom Hooper already knew – that making The Danish Girl wasn’t going to be easy.

As so often happens in Hollywood, storytellers sometimes must put a good story on hold until producers decide audiences are ready to accept them, and therefore pay money to go and see them. Gail Mutrux had to wait fifteen years for this story to be told; Eddie Redmayne only four. Society, it seems, is moving in the right direction, and it’s thanks to political and social LGBTQ progress and bold TV shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black. And yet it would be doing the story, the movie, and the performances – especially that of Alicia Vikander – a disservice to bracket The Danish Girl simply a transgender story. It is, of course, but at its core it’s a study of human relationships and the nature of love.  In that sense the movie has similarities to Hooper’s The King’s Speech. “I think in both movies, the central character is able to overcome their difficulties because they’re truly seen by those closest to them,” suggests Hooper, “In The King’s Speech, Colin Firth’s character has this wonderful relationship with Lionel Logue, and in The Danish Girl it’s [wife] Gerda’s love for Lili that allows her to go on this journey of identity."

Gerda is played in the movie by Alicia Vikander and the Swedish actress steals the show with a wonderfully poignant performance - not bad considering she first read about the movie in the trade papers. Tom Hooper remembers the moment she walked in for a screen test, “The very first take [of the screen test] with Eddie, she was so powerful that I had tears in my eyes by the end of it." Hooper, unsurprisingly, gave her the role on the spot. And it’s her chemistry with Redmayne, and the subtley in which she conveys the heartbreak of losing her husband that anchors the whole movie – Lili must make her journey alone, but the audience can only understand it through Gerda.

Einar’s transition into Lily is surprisingly subtle as well, as if Lili is already there and simply must be uncovered. It’s something director Tom Hooper and actor, Eddie Redmayne, discussed at length. “We talked of revelation rather than transformation,” says Hooper. Redmayne spent a year preparing for the role and he gives a delicate and sensitive performance –it was the actor’s “emotional rawness," says Hooper, which made him perfect for the role. “Lili is never ‘othered’ by Eddie’s performance; the audience is never made to feel that Lili is strange. [Redmayne] has the ability to take the audience on the journey with Lili, so much so that the emergence – hopefully – of Lili becomes inevitable and necessary."

The connection between Hooper and Redmayne goes back to 2005, when the director cast the actor in one of his first screen roles, Elizabeth I, the HBO miniseries starring Helen Mirren. The Danish Girl is the third collaboration between the pair and, if Hooper’s track record is anything to go by, it might not be the last - the director is a firm believer in the virtues of long term collaboration. The Danish Girl is Hooper’s fifth time working with production designer Eve Stewart and cinematographer Danny Cohen, and there is little doubt that this is both a wonderfully designed and beautifully photographed movie.

One of the key devices by which Einar’s transition into Lili is shown to the audience is through the paintings by Gerda. It is part of what makes the story unique, and the purist in Hooper wanted the real paintings for the movie – the only problem was getting them out of private collector’s hands. And so began a lengthy dialogue between the production company and the collectors. In the meantime, Hooper marched on with his plans – casting actors, scouting locations, rehearsing actors. With a month to go until filming the collectors hadn't budged and Hooper was facing a crisis – his purist vision up in smoke. Eve Stewart, in one fell swoop, identified both the problem and the solution, “Eve pulled me to one side and said, ‘you do realize that the real Lili paintings aren't Eddie Redmayne.'” Hooper puts his head in his hands and shudders at the remembrance. The solution in the end was Eddie Redmayne sitting, as Lili, for British muralist Susannah Brough, who painted over forty portraits, many of which are used in the film. The paintings are integral to the nature of the story and they form an indelible part of Lily in the audience's mind – without them, the story simply wouldn't work.

Tom Hooper was awarded Best Director by the Academy for The King’s Speech and he’s followed it with another true story – a story which demanded sensitivity, empathy, and most of all, honesty, and the director succeeds on all fronts. Eddie Redmayne also won an an Academy Award for his portrayal of scientist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything last year, and continues his streak with another fine performance. The movie, however, belongs to Alicia Vikander’s Gerda, and perhaps it’s fitting that the first person to accept Lili should be the one we remember as we walk out of the theatre.