A good film holds a mirror up to society, offering its strengths and weaknesses up to judicious scrutiny with the hope of creating a better world. Or it provides that sense of outrageous entertainment that allows us to bury our woes for a few hours and revel in its mystique. Director Tom Hooper’s follow-up to the oft-derided symphony of swooping cameras and bombast that was Les Misérables satisfies the former.
The Danish Girl, which made its world premiere at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, dramatizes the journey of Lili Elbe, played with delicate grace and poise by Eddie Redmayne. Born a biological male named Einar Wegener, a landscape painter and husband to struggling portrait artist Gerda (Alicia Vikander) in 1920s Copenhagen, a series of revelations leads to her finding her true self. She eventually becomes the first ever recipient of male to female gender reassignment surgery, paving the way, as the closing credits say, for the modern transsexual movement.
It’s a timely subject, to say the least. Just eight months after Amazon’s Transparent was awarded a heap of Golden Globes, three months removed from Caitlyn Jenner’s groundbreaking “Call Me Caitlyn” Vanity Fair cover story, and a hair over two months since the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, important strides are finally being made in the decades-long fight for LGBTQ rights, and popular culture has played a vital role in serving up non-cis narratives and characters for mainstream consumption.
Danish opens in 1926 Copenhagen, and from the get-go, with its wide-angle lenses, left-third framing, and decaying interiors, we know this is a Tom Hooper film. We’re also treated to breathtaking exterior shots of Denmark, courtesy of Hooper’s longtime cinematographer Danny Cohen, replete with exotic forestry, cliffs, and glistening waves. As this is, like The King’s Speech before it, predominately a parlor drama, the story isn’t overwhelmed by the surfeit of style.Einar and Gerda enjoy a fairly normal married existence, though they’ve struggled to procreate. Earlier, she describes her first kiss with Einar, which she initiated, as “like kissing myself.” And, though Einar has gained a modicum of local acclaim for her landscapes, Gerda’s portraits are met with a collective shrug. “You could be a first-class painter if you found the right subject matter,” a local dealer tells her.
One day, with her glamorous pal Oola (Amber Heard) having cancelled and facing a tight deadline, Gerda asks Einar to fill in so she can finish her portrait. Clenching a flowing white dress against her chest, and sporting stockings and flats, Einar experiences a sensory rush, caressing the fabric, gazing down approvingly at her shoes, and losing her breath.It becomes a sort of game to them at first: Einar will dress as Lili and serve as Gerda’s portrait subject. Before long, Einar is wearing her nighties under her everyday clothes, and, again at Gerda’s prodding, attends a ball dressed as Lili—makeup, dress, red wig, and all. There, Einar locks eyes, and then lips, with Henrik (Ben Whishaw), a floppy-haired man. Gerda witnesses this act of “betrayal,” and asks her husband to put a stop to their “game.” “I’ll try my best,” Einar replies, failing to fight back tears.
With each passing day, Einar feels more and more at home as Lili, and sneaks out in her “disguise” for clandestine meetings with Henrik. In one poignant sequence, Redmayne’s Lili observes her pale, naked body in a full-length mirror. She slowly caresses her effete face and chest, before tucking her penis between her legs. It’s an important scene because it also serves as a cultural corrective to that infamous “Goodbye Horses” dance from The Silence of the Lambs, which, riveting though it may be, was a terribly transphobic film.
After experiencing a string of bloody noses and stomach cramps, Einar is admitted to a medical facility which diagnoses it as a “chemical imbalance” and prescribes radiation treatment. They later wish to treat her for “perversion,” but she relents—instead choosing to take off to Paris with Gerda, whose exquisite Lili portraits have become all the rage.
Redmayne, who played Hooper’s Marius in the aforementioned movie-musical, is once again a revelation here, with his effeminate features—thin frame, prominent cheekbones, sparkling eyes, pouty lips—making his physical transformation seem not only believable, but necessary. Few actors bring such tenderness to their characters while at the same time communicating great inner strength and fortitude (those expressive eyes, shimmering with promise, help in this regard). This is the type of performance Oscars were made for, and Redmayne has mounted a very strong case for a second consecutive Best Actor nomination.
In Paris and removed from their native land, Lili feels freer. We learn that Lili’s always felt like a woman inside, and at the age of 6 planted a kiss on her best friend, Hans Axgil, while wearing her grandmother’s apron. When Lili feels lost, Gerda tracks down Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), now working as an art dealer in Paris, to revive her interest in painting.
It doesn’t quite take and Lili, suffering from severe depression, sees a series of Parisian doctors who variously recommend drilling holes in her head, seek to institutionalize her as a “schizophrenic,” and brand her a homosexual. Finally, she meets with a German by the name of Dr. Warnekros, who believes her story and offers to perform a first-of-its-kind series of gender reassignment surgeries on Lili. “It’s my only hope,” she says, accepting the challenge.
Though you remain onboard with Lili’s journey, it does seem a bit too tidy. With the exception of those insane medical recommendations, one frightening scene where she’s attacked by a couple of transphobic Parisians, and an all-too-brief throwaway line where Lili hints at wanting to commit suicide, we don’t quite feel the weight of the world on her shoulders. This is the 1920s after all, and the real-life Elbe faced backlash from the Danish government, who invalidated her marriage, as well as the media, who treated her like a sensationalized sideshow. But since the story is so contained and insular, the stakes seem smaller.And yes, Gerda does object occasionally to her husband’s actions, but seems far too approving for a straight 1920s wife. The real Gerda was a lesbian, and that marital arrangement seems much more believable amid these closed-minded times.
Ultimately, the film’s positive message and Redmayne’s heartrending turn win our allegiance, and when he says, “God made me a woman, but the doctor was curing me of the sickness that was my disguise,” we hang on his every word.