VENICE — Even before Eddie Redmayne scooped a best actor Oscar for his studious, fully immersed inhabitation of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” there had been talk that he could take the gold for “The Danish Girl.” To what might be the eternal aggrievement of Michael Keaton fans, the talk wasn’t quite loud enough to give the Academy pause and decide to wait a year.
“The Danish Girl” boasts many of the advantages that carried “The Theory of Everything” as an awards vehicle, beginning with its production pedigree. Both are Working Title projects from heavyweight producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner — who have shepherded four previous best picture nominees together — with Focus Features as their U.S. distributor. Both are prestige biopics, ever a beloved genre of the Academy, with tony credentials, including an Oscar-winning filmmaker at the helm. In this case, that would be the television-schooled Brit Tom Hooper, who followed up the Oscar triumph of “The King’s Speech” with a monster hit (and another best picture nominee) in “Les Misérables.”
More to the point, however, the role of Lili Elbe (who started life as Einar Wegener) is a seemingly rich challenge for any actor — or actress, given that Nicole Kidman was once primed for the shoes ultimately filled by Redmayne. A once-celebrated painter in her native Denmark, Elbe is believed to be history’s first recipient of gender reassignment surgery; after presenting regularly as a woman for around a decade, she underwent the procedure in the last year of her life. Needless to say, it’s a poignant human arc, and one that puts Redmayne to a very different test of physical transformation than the one he underwent as Hawking.
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Furthermore, he has topicality on his side: Transgender issues are experiencing an all-time peak in popular awareness right now, with names like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox bringing the conversation into the mainstream. “The Danish Girl” isn’t even the only transgender-themed film out this year: “Tangerine” was a Sundance sensation, while “About Ray” is set to play alongside Hooper’s film in Toronto next week. The first publicity still of Redmayne in costume as Elbe — looking not unlike a moodier Jessica Chastain — set the Internet ablaze, with casual and industry pundits alike marking him as a best actor nominee before seeing a single frame of film.
Through all this advance hype, rising Swedish star Alicia Vikander’s presence in the film has been treated as something as an afterthought — even as she scored a popular breakthrough this spring in Alex Garland’s cult-attracting sci-fi pic “Ex Machina.” It wasn’t her only notable performance of the year’s first half: She was wrenching as WWI diarist Vera Brittain in “Testament of Youth,” even if the lush Sony Classics release went underseen by auds. She’s been present in multiplexes, too, though “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” gave her little to work with and “Seventh Son” is a film all concerned would rather forget. “Tulip Fever,” “The Light Between Oceans” and “Burnt” are all in the 2015 pipeline; it’s the kind of year’s work that often yields awards by dint of sheer saturation.
Nevertheless, the presumption had been that Vikander’s role in “The Danish Girl” — as fellow artist Gerda Wegender, Einar’s understanding wife and Elbe’s faithful friend — was a secondary one. Many actresses have received supporting nominations for picking a character from the “supportive-spouse” pile, often as a kind of running mate for a flashier lead performance; fewer actors have benefited from the same strategy, though that’s the Bechdel-challenged industry for you.
Yet the surprise of “The Danish Girl” — and it’s a film of few surprises, taking precisely the decorous, crowd-pleasing approach to tricky subject matter that one would expect from Hooper’s previous work — is that it’s as much Vikander’s showcase as it is Redmayne’s. As told in Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay, Gerda’s story is as emotionally compelling as Lili’s, as she has to override her own desires and reservations in order to set her husband free. The film is fashioned very much as the story of a marriage in crisis, forced to end despite deep reserves of love on either side. Toggling sensuality and sensitivity, with a latent streak of anger throughout, Vikander plays her half beautifully: It’s not as tonally exciting as her “Ex Machina” turn, and a little more limpid than her current career peak of “Testament of Youth,” but with a fair wind for the film itself, it’s the stuff that best actress campaigns are built upon.
Where does this leave Redmayne? Not, at the stage, at any particular disadvantage. His work as Lili is typically dedicated and physically studied, and will attract much praise — though for this writer, he’s a little less persuasive than his co-star, playing the character’s gender dysphoria from the outside in. (It should be mentioned that no attempt is made, for better or worse, to age up the actors, both of whose characters were in their late 40s by the point at which the film leaves them.) As a technical feat of thespian metamorphosis, it’s less spectacular than what he achieved in “The Theory of Everything.” Consecutive acting Oscars are, needless to say, rare achievements: The last person to manage one, over 20 years ago, was Tom Hanks, buoyed by the best picture nomination and popular phenomenon status of “Forrest Gump.”
“The Danish Girl” has every chance of being both popular and a best picture nominee, though it remains to be seen whether it can break out commercially beyond the specialist circuit — with transgender stories still a largely untested commodity in the cinematic mainstream. Equally uncertain at this point is to what extent it will be embraced by critics: Variety’s Peter Debruge is among those giving it the thumbs-up, while other attendees at Saturday morning’s Venice screening (this one included) were less taken with it. Either way, it’s not necessarily a film for the highbrow Euro-fest crowd; Toronto might be a more telling proving ground.
Hooper knows as well as anyone how mixed reviews can spoil a neat-looking awards narrative. “Les Misérables” was believed by many to be an unstoppable juggernaut after well-received initial screenings, but was done few favors by a vocal cold front of major critics. It still scored eight Oscar noms, but wound up an also-ran, while Hooper was left out of the best director race entirely. However it progresses from here, “The Danish Girl” should impress enough Academy branches to secure it a base foundation of nominations: Eve Stewart’s lavish production design (boasting shades of that famously distressed feature wall from “The King’s Speech”), Paco Delgado’s chic, gender-bridging costumes and reigning Oscar champ Alexandre Desplat’s characteristically ornate score can all be predicted with confidence. (I’m less certain about Danny Cohen’s cinematography, though it’s a distinct possibility; suffice to say that Hooper hasn’t yet tired of his trademark wide-angle lens.)
With so much yet to be revealed, then, above-the-line nominations still hang in the balance. But I’m not the only one wondering if Vikander (the Swedish girl, if you will) might emerge as the film’s feistiest candidate for gold — the benefactor, as is so often the case in this game, of less advance scrutiny. There would, of course, be a certain irony to a potential milestone in transgender cultural portraiture being rewarded instead for its chief cisgender character: fodder, perhaps, for one of the many think pieces that “The Danish Girl” will inspire upon its release, to the potential advantage or detriment of its campaign.