The Danish Girl: An interview with director Tom Hooper

Farhana Gani

We interview Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper about his new film, The Danish Girl—a beautiful portrait of a marriage and a story of the moment, starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.

Tom Hooper tells us why he had to make The Danish Girl

2015 has been a watershed year for transgender people in the media and on film and TV. Caitlyn Jenner, previously known as Bruce Jenner, the Olympic gold medal-winning athlete, underwent gender transition and reassignment surgery, and presented her true self to the world via a Vanity Fair cover story. It made headlines all over the world and social media exploded, for the most part in support of Jenner’s rebirth.

The end of the year saw the second season of Amazon Studios’ Transparent, a TV series in which Jeffrey Tambor plays a retired college professor who embarks on a new life as a woman. An instant hit with audiences around the world, the first series won the Golden Globes for Best TV Series and Best Actor.

The transgender storyline is live, unleashed and thriving in popular culture. 

The Danish Girl opens in cinemas on 1st January. Adapted from a fictionalised account of the life of Einar Wegener, a.k.a. Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. It’s an unusual love story inspired by the lives of Einar/Lili and wife Gerda, played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables, The Theory of Everything) and Alicia Vikander (Testament of Youth, Ex-Machina), and directed by Oscar winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables). 

 

“I fell in love with it seven years ago. And it was this extraordinary script about an incredible love story at its centre that drew me in and really moved me”

 

The Danish Girl has been in production for eight years. The film opens in 1926 in Copenhagen. Einar is a celebrated young artist revered for his landscape paintings, and Gerda paints portraits. Their marriage appears to be solid, tender and passionate.

One day Gerda asks her husband to stand in for her absent model. She’s on a deadline and needs to finish an important painting. Einar sportingly puts on a dress and silk stockings transforming into Lili. The experience proves to be an epiphany for Einar. This realisation is about to change both their lives. 

Hooper was drawn to the project instantly. “I fell in love with the script as soon as I read it, which was in 2008 when I was preparing The King’s Speech. It was the best script I’ve ever read. I wept three times when I read it—and I’m not sentimental. I’ve wanted to make the movie ever since.”

The film is a visual feast, each scene a painter’s canvas. The colour palettes are lush and seductive, whether it’s the moody blues of a Danish dusk or the heavenly whites of the women’s hospital. The cast is youthful and photogenic, from Eddie Redmayne to Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw to Amber Heard. And the story is engaging, intensely serious and tasteful. Like The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper has taken a true-life story, about overcoming a physiological or psychological handicap, and made it approachable for a mainstream family audience.

Stylistically it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum to French director François Ozon’s daring and unsentimental The New Girlfriend. Both deal with secrecy, friendship, support and transformation but in very different ways. Where The New Girlfriend mixes romance and thriller with satire and sex-change, The Danish Girl delicately displays unconditional love when confronting life-changing desires, and is more likely to leave you weeping than laughing. 

The Danish Girl presents transformation on many levels. Einar becomes Lili. Gerda’s career takes her from struggling artist to sought-after sensation. And Einar and Gerda’s conventional marriage evolves into an unconventional intimacy between Gerda and Lili. 

 

“Vikander’s Gerda is all heart, fire and passion and she is the film’s secret strength.”

 

As the deepness of their love manifests itself, gender becomes meaningless. At the women’s hospital during a final consultation with his surgeon, Einar tells him: “I believe I am a woman.” Gerda looks at Einar/Lili and turns to the doctor. “I believe it too,” she tells him. 

Eddie Redmayne is physically mesmerising as Lili. The skill and subtlety of body language in his performance, and his character’s quietly determined acceptance of who she really is, makes this another impressive Redmayne role for which he is bound to be amply rewarded. But Alicia Vikander is not to be overlooked.

Gerda’s story is every bit as essential as Lili’s. Vikander’s Gerda is all heart, fire and passion and she is the film’s secret strength. The danger involved in the pioneering surgery Lili chooses to undertake is shown through Gerda’s fear, pain and helplessness. 

Where Redmayne’s Einar/Lili is uncertain, isolated and restrained, Vikander’s Gerda is bold, compassionate and adventurous. Her spontaneous performance breathes life into the film, and it is Gerda’s emotional complexities we empathise with. Ultimately Gerda is the Danish girl we unequivocally embrace and celebrate.

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