Film Review: The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper’s sumptuous, Oscar-bound biopic, with a phenomenal performance from Eddie Redmayne as a transsexual woman discovering her identity, tells an important, forgotten story with a tad too much taste, but great sincerity.
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With his slight build, fine features and ferocious talent, Eddie Redmayne (last year’s Oscar winner for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) was born to play Lili Elbe, the transgender trailblazer striving to become herself in the first third of the 20th century in director Tom Hooper’s restrained but deeply compassionate The Danish Girl. Redmayne actually captures two complex characters: Einar Wegener, a shy, successful Danish landscape painter happily married to Gerda, a feisty, less successful portraitist, and Lili, the woman determined to break free and be freed from the body she does not consider hers. Elbe was one of the first people to undergo gender confirmation surgery in Dresden in the 1930s.

Based on David Ebershoff’s semi-biographical novel of the same name, Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay paints an idealized but moving portrait of a marriage inventive enough to bring Lili to life. But once Lili realizes there’s no going back, Gerda, in a charismatic performance by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), must come to terms with what amounts to the death of her husband, while struggling to remain loyal to the evolving Lili. In real life, Elbe was in his late 40s when he began the surgeries, and Gerda (who was most likely gay or bisexual) was no longer with him toward the end, although she remained supportive.

There’s surprising buoyancy in the film’s first part; Einar and Gerda can’t keep their hands off each other, and it seems that Einar, especially, is madly in love with Gerda: “My wife, my life,” he says. We recognize, however, through some unsubtle foreshadowing, as when Einar runs his hands over the fur and costumes he passes in a ballet rehearsal room, all is not what it seems. When Gerda begs Einar to sit for her in stockings and satin slippers because her model, the dancer Ulla (Amber Heard), is late, he resists, but ultimately surrenders to the pleasure, silk and balletic pose. Ulla, arriving finally with a bohemian flourish, christens her Lili. Man Into Woman, a book based on Elbe’s writings, recalls this event as transformative. Soon Gerda is dressing her husband in women’s clothing, applying makeup and wig, and painting a series of portraits that earn her a major art dealer. Lili is her muse. But no one knows that Einar is Lili. Why not take Lili out?

Echoing the momentous scene in which Professor Higgins introduces Eliza Doolittle to society, Gerda and Lili enter a Copenhagen ballroom, nervous and exhilarated, Lili feeling men’s eyes on her for the first time. But the tone changes when a handsome suitor, Henrik (Ben Whishaw), pursues then kisses her. She vacillates between joy and horror, then abruptly leaves with a nosebleed in the arms of a distressed Gerda. Desperate, Einar consults doctors, who try radiation, threaten institutionalization, and roundly diagnose insanity. Even after the couple moves to the more cosmopolitan Paris, they’re confronted by the ignorance and prejudice of trans-bashers as well as the medical profession, until they meet the empathetic Dr. Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), who believes he can help.

Redmayne embodies Lili’s initial tentativeness, head bowed, swanlike, her fleeting smile, inward gaze; his translucent skin seems to mirror his character’s acute vulnerability. But as Lili grows to trust herself, Redmayne conveys her poise and tenacity; the actor’s expressive hands speak volumes. It’s a wrenching and dazzling performance.

Not surprising from the Academy Award-winning director of The King’s Speech (and Les Misérables), Hooper’s film is beautifully composed, with elegant cinematography by Danny Cohen, stunning period costumes by Paco Delgado, and graceful interiors by production designer Eve Stewart. Jan Sewell, who worked with Redmayne on The Theory of Everything, is a marvel with hair and makeup. Had only the music by the estimable composer Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) been a little less intrusive.

In this year of Caitlyn Jenner and the Emmy-winning “Transparent,” audiences have grown more familiar with the profound challenges confronting those transitioning today, but The Danish Girl allows us to imagine what life was like for transgender men and women before there was even a name to describe their identity, while reclaiming the brave and extraordinary life of Lili Elbe.

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