1926, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Artists, Ben Whishaw, Copenhagen, Denmark, Drama, Eddie Redmayne, Einar Wegener, Gerda Wegener, Lili Elbe, Literary adaptation, Matthias Schoenaerts, Painting, Sex change, Tom Hooper, Transgender, True story
D: Tom Hooper / 119m
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Adrian Schiller, Pip Torrens
Copenhagen, 1926. Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a celebrated painter and husband to fellow painter Gerda (Vikander). They live in a big house by a canal and appear to be blissfully happy together, despite Gerda’s work being passed over by the local art dealer (Schiller), and despite not having had a child together in the six years they’ve been married. They are well regarded amongst their friends and contemporaries, including Ulla (Heard), a dancer who Gerda has agreed to paint a portrait of. One day Ulla is late for her sitting and Gerda asks Einar to take her place. He puts on stockings and shoes and covers himself with a dress; the effect of having the dress next to him reawakens old feelings from his childhood. When Ulla does arrive she’s delighted to see her “substitute” and tells Einar he should be known as Lili.
Later, Gerda discovers Einar is wearing one of her nightgowns under his clothes. She accepts this and the next morning while he sleeps she sketches him, giving him an androgynous look. When Einar refuses to attend an artist’s ball, Gerda prompts him to attend in disguise, as his “cousin” Lili. She intends it to be a game while Einar is secretly pleased to be able to dress as a woman. At the ball, Lili attracts the attention of Henrik (Whishaw) who engineers a situation where he kisses her. This initially confuses Einar but the urge to continue as Lili is stronger and he continues to see Henrik secretly.
When their relationship ends, Einar makes the decision to be Lili most of the time. Out of this, Gerda finds her muse, and her paintings of Lili begin to gain attention. When her work is noticed by art dealers in Paris, she takes the opportunity to go there, and succeeds in persuading Einar to come with her. It’s good timing, as Einar has been seeking treatment for what he believes is a condition that can be resolved, but most doctors believe he is either insane or perverted and want to see him committed. In Paris, Gerda contacts Einar’s childhood friend and art dealer Hans Axgil (Schoenaerts), but when she brings Hans back to their apartment, they find Lili there instead of Einar.
At this time Einar and Gerda hear about a German doctor who is interested in people like Einar who feel like they are a woman trapped inside a man’s body. The doctor, called Warnekros (Koch), is trying to pioneer the kind of surgery that will allow a man to become a woman, complete with female genitals. Einar agrees to undergo the procedures necessary as he feels this is his best chance of becoming the person he really is – Lili. Meanwhile, Gerda’s conflicting emotions about her husband lead her to skirt perilously close to having an affair with Hans.
At one point in The Danish Girl, Einar Wegener visits a Paris brothel and watches through a window as a young woman sensuously caresses herself. He mimics her movements, and in doing so, has an orgasm. It’s a telling moment, as Einar’s need to be a woman finds expression in a moment of heightened sexuality. It’s also the point at which the movie makes it clear to the audience that Einar’s condition isn’t the result of some mental incapacity, or a chemical imbalance. This is where Einar truly becomes Lili, even if he still has to dress as a man on certain occasions.
Lili’s story has been told in her own words in the book, Man into Woman: The First Sex Change, published in 1933, and drawn largely from the diary entries she wrote while undergoing her sex change procedure. The Danish Girl takes the book as a starting point and tells Lili’s story with a stately precision that both heightens the drama and allows room for Hooper to delve deeply into the relationship between Einar and Gerda and Lili herself. For this to work, the movie needed two actors capable of navigating the intricacies of gender confusion and emotional displacement, as Einar embarks on his all-consuming journey to become Lili, and Gerda tries to come to terms with losing the only man she’s ever loved. Fortunately, the movie has Redmayne and Vikander in it, and these two amazingly versatile actors keep the movie from being as dreary and confined as the movie’s backdrop (the movie is a triumph of muted colours and dull settings).
Redmayne is on superb form here, portraying Einar’s transformation from tormented man to blissfully happy woman with so much tenderness and understanding of the mixed emotions both Einar and Lili must have felt that it’s impossible to detect a false note anywhere in his performance. It’s hard to think of another actor who could have portrayed the two roles so effectively. And he’s matched by Vikander, an actress who goes from strength to strength in every movie she makes (even if it’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). She takes what could have been a secondary character and imbues her with a clear-sighted intelligence and emotional resilience that complements Redmayne’s performance and ensures that Gerda’s part in all this isn’t forgotten or given less importance. Their scenes together have such a charge that some of them leave the viewer on the edge of their seat, poised to see how their relationship will develop and how much their love for each other will see them through.
As mentioned above, Hooper directs in a stately manner he seems to have picked up from watching too many heritage movies, and while this doesn’t disadvantage the movie completely, it does lead to moments where the passage of time – on screen at least – seems slower than it actually is (the events here take place over four years, but you wouldn’t know it otherwise). Some viewers may find their patience tested on these occasions but this is a movie that draws you in with its performances and proves compelling because of them. Few movies take the time to examine in detail how their characters feel, and why, but The Danish Girl – thanks to Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay – does it throughout and with an honesty that uplifts what could have been an entirely depressing story. But then again, this is a movie about courage and determination against the odds, and at a time when transgender issues were only just beginning to be addressed by the medical community. And the movie tackles these issues with a tremendous amount of sympathy and compassion.
The movie has another distinguished, evocative score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat, and is beautifully framed and shot by Danny Cohen (though again, Hooper’s choice of muted colours remains an issue). And Melanie Oliver’s editing is another strength, her ability to utilise a combination of static shots and measured cutting helping to improve the visual style. Away from the main story, the movie drops the ball on only two occasions: with the subplot involving Gerda’s attraction to Hans, which is unnecessary and would seem more relevant if this were a soap opera; and Lili’s relationship with Henrik, which isn’t explored fully, and which adds confusion to the already confused state she’s in at the time (just what is their relationship about?). But these issues aside, the movie is the kind of intelligent, clearly defined movie making that doesn’t come along very often, and which does enormous justice to its central characters.
Rating: 8/10 – with a virtuoso performance from Redmayne, and an equally impressive turn from Vikander, The Danish Girl is a riveting true story about the recipient of the world’s first sex change operation; impressively mounted, and with an honesty that permeates every scene, this is a movie well worth investing the time with, and which rewards on almost every level.