The idea of being born the wrong gender has seldom, if ever, been so numinously portrayed as in The Danish Girl, delicately directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables). Set in 1920s Copenhagen, Eddie Redmayne plays landscape painter, Einar Wegener who transforms into Lili. When Einar becomes the modeling subject of his artist wife, Gerda, a deepened awareness of his physical body and psyche scales away his male consciousness and identity to reveal the female within him. Like bits of the old self being peeled away and replaced by the new.
Alicia Vikander’s Gerda is deeply empathic. This splendid actress, who also shone earlier this year as a chilling automaton in Ex Machina, transmits an inner strength, warmth, and anguish, as she sees her role and identity struggle as transitions in their own right. As with Einar/Lili it is a brave new world for Gerda as she stands by Einer/Lili’s side throughout as her marriage disintegrates. Yet for all that, her love for Lili never falters. She stands by the central person in her life despite the awkwardness and mean-spiritedness sprung from the rigid social order’s barometric pressure. Not to mention, self-blame she feels for what she wrongly thinks is her fault.
Scene after captivating scene we see Lili come more fully into her own consciousness — some are joyous, some are unsettling, as she navigates a truly perilous identity crisis. Subtle bits of realization about that which is within steadily transform her. Feminine gestures and a traditionally feminine clothing style emerge like a blossoming flower, scrupulously enacted by Redmayne. This unfolds toward Germany in what is generally considered one of the first two sex re-assignment surgeries: Lili’s from 1930 to 1932. The other was Dora R. in 1931.
The Danish Girl is inspired by David Ebershoff’s novel. It is not hard biography but what is called fictional biography, the sort which two greats, for example, Gore Vidal and Victoria Holt, were known for. This type of source material sets Hooper’s film up as a lightning rod. A biographical novel does not purport to be fact and biographical novels have been around a long, long time. They serve a very important purpose when done conscientiously, synthesizing new information and learned speculation about the person or the period. (Every hard biography of Shakespeare, for instance, has come under the accusation of being somewhat fabricated by its author.) Tragically, the study of literature has been cut by conservatives in public school funding battles and has been dogmatized by politically correct forces on the left. Therefore, since study of books has been woefully diminished, one hears soapbox silliness spouted about the veracity or not of any number of biographical fiction books and screenplays. (I first recall this as a child when Patton was released. But really, wouldn’t it be ludicrous to denigrate that remarkable film and its landmark performance by George C. Scott. Please!) Well-done fictional biography is a spur for readers to do some of their own research about the subject. It’s not the same zone where we fact-check words of politicians, bankers, and polluters.
One of the great virtues of The Danish Girl is that Redmayne and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon do not shy away from the terrifying fact that sex reassignment surgery was especially dangerous in the early days. This is presented to visceral effect. The film also recalls the inhumane treatments to “cure” what was thought of in a hateful way, as a form of gender identity disorder.
On the other hand, The Danish Girl looks into Lili’s supportive cisgender friendships. Amber Heard is delightful as the couple’s best friend. A suave Matthias Schoenaerts is utterly magnetic as Hans, Lili’s childhood friend as an adult. Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas, Lilting, Suffragette) is appealingly cheeky as Henrik, a gay man who mistakenly thinks Einar/Lili is gay at first but who admires her tenacity and courage. Yet another example of this young actor’s expanding range, and perhaps his most masculine role yet.
There has been unsubstantiated whining, as opposed to serious criticism of The Danish Girl being more about the cisgender people in Lili’s life than Lili. First off, that’s inaccurate, objectively speaking! Moreover, look at two terrific Minnesota Fringe Festival plays earlier this year. Getting to Ellen and Trans Families brought into vivid focus the daunting obstacles and issues that trans folk inevitably must deal with in relation to cisgender people, loved by them or not. This solipsistic call for trans people to erase cisgender difficulties and conflicts is to lie about reality.
New York Times critic A.O. Scott carelessly put forth such an absurdity in the service of being politically correct servitude than independent in thought, in attempting to validate his very debatable review. We live in relation to each other. Though solo performances can be highly accomplished, real characters live in relationship to others. To be quite clear, from the acting angle, The Danish Girl is definitely Redmayne’s film and we root for the character from start to finish, but the performance is not solipsistic. And that’s not a fault. Lili, like every human being, does not live in a vacuum.
The Danish Girl‘s image composition is presented with visual gorgeousness: Danny Cohen, cinematography and Eve Stewart, production design. This milestone film also won the Queer Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival and features one of the cutest little dogs of the year!
The Danish Girl
Opens Dec. 18
Edina Cinema, 3911 50th St., Edina
Wider release Dec. 25 and wider yet on Jan. 1