Actors soar in tender, fact-based transgender story ‘The Danish Girl’
What must it be like to feel that the body you were born into is the wrong gender? This cataclysmic emotional shift in identity is such a private matter, it seems near impossible to capture onscreen. But Tom Hooper makes a valiant effort in The Danish Girl, the fact-based story of Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener, one of the first people known to have undergone sexual reassignment surgery in the 1920s, transitioning into a woman named Lili Elbe.
Although the spotlight is on Einar/Lili, the larger story Hooper tells is the evolving relationship between the painter and his wife, Gerda. It is Gerda’s journey, watching the husband she adores turn into someone else, and the choices she must face to accept and support him, that makes their story so engrossing. Factor in a couple of splendidly nuanced performances from Eddie Redmayne, as Einar/Lili, and Alicia Vikander, as Gerda, and it all adds up to a moving, tender, and sometimes even wryly funny portrait of love and identity.
Scripted by Lucinda Coxson, the movie is adapted from the novel by David Ebershoff. The book is a fictionalized account, so it doesn’t necessarily stick to the facts of the Wegeners’ real lives. (Parts of their relationship here is fabricated.) But as a work of fiction, this tale of sexual confusion and transition is told with compassion and clarity.
In Copenhagen, 1926, Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a successful painter of lovely, meticulous landscapes. His wife Gerda (Vikander) is also a painter, but she can’t get anyone in the local art community to take her portraits seriously. The two of them met in art school, married young, and enjoy a healthy active sex life and a playful sense of camaraderie.
Rushing to finish a commissioned portrait one day, when her model is delayed, Gerda begs Einar to pose in a pair of silk stockings and satin slippers so she can paint his feet. The effect on Einar is immediate and electrifying, as an aspect of his personality he’s been trying to suppress his whole life begins to assert itself. When Gerda eggs him on to attend an artists’ masked ball with her, dressed as a woman, the urge to let his inner, feminine self take over is almost irresistible—especially when a friend who’s in on the masquerade dubs his new, female self “Lili.”
Einar is both terrified and liberated by the emergence of his inner Lili. As the Lili persona becomes more dominant, Gerda resents her at first, but begins to grasp how difficult it is for Lili to keep living the lie that was Einar. Diagnosed as “insane” and “schizophrenic” by doctors who try to “cure” him with radiation, Einar finally consults a German doctor who proposes the unimaginable—a dangerous new series of surgeries that might give Lili the female anatomy she craves.
Although the postwar twenties is an era of radical social and cultural experimentation, there are no LGBT support groups, no “Transparent” sitcom to back up Einar/Lili in her struggle. All she has is the conviction that she’s in the wrong body, and her courage in refusing to compromise who she is inside is tremendous. Every bit as stalwart is Gerda, enduring the collapse of the life and the marriage she thought would last forever, but fighting back with loyalty and compassion for the person she loves.
Ben Whishaw shows up as a man attracted to Lili—or possibly to Einar. Matthias Schoenaerts lends solid support as a childhood friend of Einar, now a Parisian art dealer, who tries to help the Wegeners cope. (“I’ve only really liked a few people in my life,” he tells Einar, “and you have been two of them.”) And the period setting is gorgeous, from Paco Delgado’s deliciously bohemian costumes to Gerda’s series of portraits of Lili, with the bold, clean, art deco lines of the work of Tamara Lempicka.
It’s no surprise that Redmayne tackles his role with persuasive delicacy. But Vikander (having a great year, after Ex Machina and Testament of Youth) is the real Oscar-bait for her tough, funny, sensitive Gerda. They give The Danish Girl its heart and soul.
THE DANISH GIRL
***1/2 (out four)
With Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. Written by Lucinda Coxson. Directed by Tom Hooper. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 120 minutes.