At a point in our history when Caitlyn Jenner makes headlines and gay marriage divides attitudes, considering that the setting for director Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl is almost a hundred years ago, it’s surprising to realize just how timely the film really is.
Lili Elvenes was a Danish transgender woman, an artist who was born Einar Wegener in 1882. She was occasionally introduced in public as Einar’s sister, but once she became the receiver of an experimental gender reassignment surgery in Germany in 1930 – more simply, a sex change – she had her name legally changed from Einar Elvenes to Lili Elbe. There’s a book regarding the details of Elbe, her life as a man, then as Lili, but some of the details were fudged in order to hide the identities of others involved in Lili’s story. Thus, what we see in Hooper’s biographical drama is really a tasteful re-imagined account based on David Ebershoff’s fictionalized novel but inspired by real characters and real events.
The film begins in Copenhagen. It’s 1926 and Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is an artist; a man best known for his Danish country landscapes. “You must be so proud of your husband,” an admirer tells Einar’s wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), also an artist.
Gerda is having less success with acceptance of her work than her husband. When told that her paintings while good require better subjects, Gerda asks Einar to sit in. The subject of Gerda’s new work is socialite Oola (Amber Heard) but Oola is late, so just until the friend arrives, Einar dons the stockings and feminine shoes, and poses. It’s only when Oola arrives and appears thrilled that Einar has taken her place that she dubs him with some amusement, Lili. That may well have been the moment when Lili was born, but as Einar will later tell his wife, “She was always there.”
There are telling moments before Lili emerges. When Einar neatly folds his wife’s lacy top, it’s slow and tender as if something within is savoring the simple act. He neatly wipes the slightest imperfection of his wife’s lipstick from her lips with the gentlest touch of his finger as if he knows exactly what he’s doing, and when he dons the ballerina silk stocking to pose for Gerda’s painting, you sense he experiences an inner rush of excitement as though something within has already stirred. Later, when Gerda sketches her husband, his head on a pillow, she wonders aloud when was it that Einar became so pretty. “I was always pretty,” he lazily smiles, half asleep. “You just never noticed.”
The approach director Hooper takes is one of extreme respect for his subject. The film is sensitive, even polite, and while there’s an overall sense that we’re watching something meticulously plotted, aided by Danny Cohen’s exquisite cinematography which at times is as delicate and as lovely as many of the paintings we see hanging in the galleries, the film would remain a blank canvas without the performances of its two leading players. What’s more important is that the effectiveness of one would be lessened by the absence of the other.
Both Sweden’s Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne break each other’s hearts as Vikander’s Gerda witnesses Redmayne transform himself from Einar to Lili. He consumes the role to a remarkable degree in the way that Lili consumes Einar. When Gerda aks Lili for an audience with her husband, she begs the person before her, “Can you at least get him?” All Lili can do is slowly, tearfully, shake her head, no. Einar is gone.
When talking of The Danish Girl, it’s impossible not to mention the Oscars. This is the kind of art-house film that many may see – some will enjoy it; those accompanying a friend, I suspect, will leave the theatre indifferent – but all who posses an eye for quality and achievement will refer to those awards when it comes to Vikander and Redmayne. They may not win, and the film itself should not. Despite an unconventional subject, The Danish Girl is tastefully conventional throughout and as a result, often lacks an emotional engagement. But both performers deserve the acknowledgement of nominations for delivering something of Gerda and Lili that is satisfyingly special and uniquely theirs. Other names were attached to the project before filming began, but having now seen the film, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Vikander and Redmayne inhabiting those roles.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 120 Minutes Overall rating: 7 (out of 10)