Based on the experience of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in the 1920s, “The Danish Girl” also features another superb, transformative performance by Eddie Redmayne, who is fast becoming the Daniel Day Lewis of his generation.
In 1926, Einar and Gerde Wegener (Redmayne and Alicia Vikander) are married artists, Einar renowned as a landscape painter and Gerde struggling to make her name as a portraitist. They are a young, attractive, very happy couple, mutually supportive of each others’ work, so much so that when Gerde’s female model doesn’t show up one day, her husband agrees to wear tights and ballet shoes so that she can complete her painting.
They laugh, she paints. And in a flickering moment that Gerde doesn’t notice, Einar’s initial unease subtly shifts to fascination – for the texture of the tights, the appearance of the shoes, the idea of attempting female gestures.
This casual, carefree moment has acted as a trigger, which the oblivious, playful Gerde proceeds to fire again, when suggesting that Einar disguise himself fully as a woman for the artists’ ball. They decide that Gerde’s sister “Lili” will accompany Gerde. On the way, Lili asks “Am I pretty enough?” By the time she has attracted the attentions of a fellow guest (Ben Whishaw), and Einar acknowledges that for a moment it was “just Lili” who responded, the woman is here to stay.
Adapted from David Ebershoff’s novel by Lucinda Coxon, the film charts Lili’s difficult, trailblazing journey, from first coming to terms with what she’s feeling, identifying what it represents – that she is, in fact, a woman – to becoming one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. And this, in a period when the diagnoses of a clueless medical profession range from perversion to schizophrenia, some wanting to lock Einar up on the spot.
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In fact, “The Danish Girl” is the tale of two remarkable women. Ironically, Gerde’s paintings of Lili and the style she finds to capture her exotic new model lead to her breakthrough as an artist, which takes the couple to Paris. While contending with the heartbreak of losing her husband, she never wavers in helping Lili try to become her true self.
Hooper deftly handles Lili’s discovery of herself, particularly her physicality. An early bedroom scene features an appropriately naked Vikander embracing her partner, who is wearing a dress, the image rippling with significance for the genders before us, and the reality of the relationship. A scene in Paris sees Lili attend a peep show, not to ogle at the naked woman performing on the other side of the glass, but to study her gestures in what is, oddly, a safe environment.
For the most part the direction has the no-flash straightforwardness of “The King’s Speech.” Some will argue that “The Danish Girl” is a too-tasteful
account of a difficult and topical subject. The
film lacks any sense of how Lili was accepted in the world outside her close
circle, and the process of transition is simplified to a daft degree. Yet there’s value in telling the story, even in its broad strokes, to a wide
audience. And it helps when your actors can deliver so strongly.
I’d argue that Lili is a better performance than Redmayne’s Oscar-winning Stephen Hawking. The Brit happens to have such delicate features that when Einar emerges as Lily she is remarkably convincing as a woman (even if that’s not really the point); more importantly, Redmayne also has a delicate range of expression that can suggest Lili’s myriad feelings – the bewilderment, sadness, excitement, fear – in such a way that we accept the emotional tumult, are deeply moved by it, yet never feel that we’re being assaulted by histrionics or confection. The actor has a power of empathy that results in consummate subtlety – a skill that’s easily taken for granted.
Vikander, whose own heady rise could only be undermined by over-exposure, is a feisty, funny, warm foil to Redmayne. Gerde is reminiscent of the actress’s Vera Brittain in “Testament of Youth” in one important respect: she’s a woman who waives her own pain while attending to others. As such, she’s just as heartbreaking as Redmayne.
Matthias Schoenaerts and Amber Heard co-star, as sympathetic friends on the sidelines.