The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl is based on the true story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, the first person to have gender reassignment surgery. At the beginning of the film, Einar, played by Eddie Redmayne is a successful landscape artist living in Copenhagen in the 1920’s. He’s married to Gerda Wegener, played by Alicia Vikander. She is also an artist but she specializes in portraits and is struggling for recognition. They are happy, have an active sex life and are trying to have a baby but with no luck.
At one point, Gerda needs to finish a portrait quickly and doesn’t want to bring back her model. It’s of a dancer and all she needs is the feet. So Einar puts on a pair of stockings and ballet slippers and poses. Eventually, over his objections, she drapes the dress over him. This begins a process for Einar who discovers that he likes the feel of women’s clothes. As a lark, they dress him up as woman, calling him Lili, Einar’s cousin from his hometown of Elbe, and they go to a party to see if they can fool people. Wearing her night gown becomes part of their sexual ritual.
Eventually, Lili becomes a separate person. Einar realizes that his confusion and struggles since adolescence now make sense. He is a woman in a man’s body.
At this time in history, people who felt this way and behaved like this were considered mentally ill and were institutionalized. The couple flees to Paris where, with the help of Einar’s childhood friend, Hans Axgil, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, they find a doctor who thinks he can help.
Needless to say this puts stress on the marriage. Gerda likes Lili and using her as a model has jump-started her career, but she misses her husband. Hans is very tempting.
The director Tom Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon have purposely designed a story that makes the audience uncomfortable. There is tension throughout the film. At first there is the prospect of getting caught in their charade. Not only would that have been awkward socially but as I mentioned before that kind of behavior could get them in serious trouble. Later there is the flight to Paris and the prospect of the surgery which has never been tried before and is consequently very dangerous. As a result the film holds your interest and moves along at a good pace. The script never descends into preachiness, keeping the focus on the human story.
Once again, Eddie Redmayne has delivered an immersive physically precise performance. At the beginning of the film he shows us a character who is awkwardly male, not flamboyantly effeminate, but not very comfortable in his own body. The film takes us through the process of him learning to move and act like a woman. There are many sumptuous close ups of his fingers caressing silk stockings and fur coats, obviously relishing the feel of those fabrics. He captures not only Einar/Lili’s obvious vulnerability but also her strong resolve. Once she realizes what the problem is and the solution, there is no stopping her.
Likewise Alicia Vikander is extremely moving as a woman who loves her husband, wants to support him and ultimately does, even though that means losing him. Her conflict is played out in her soulful eyes. It is a wonderful performance.
Tom Hooper is a very conventional director. After all he won an Oscar for directing The King’s Speech, which is as straightforward a film as you could want. You would think that this subject matter might have attracted a more radical cutting edge director but I think that would have been a disaster. By taking a down to earth approach and emphasizing character, Hooper has made these issues accessible to a great many people. Maybe that’s how you change minds.


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