The Danish Girl
* * * *
Eddie Redmayne gives the year’s best male performance in The Danish Girl, a fascinating portrait of real-life transgender pioneer Lile Elbe, the Danish painter who came to realize that her gender identity and physical body were incongruous and who, with neither the acceptance of society nor any existing role models, found compassion and encouragement from a long-suffering but supportive wife and soul mate, played by ubiquitous new star Alicia Vikander.
The profound strength of this picture is in this richly sensitive central relationship, written by Lucinda Coxon and directed by Oscar-winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) as a high-stakes love story that surprises us with the pair’s progressive union and the sacrifices each makes. Based on the novel by David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl is a moving meditation on the human condition and a treatise on the elasticity of unconditional love.
This engrossing movie, which could have been a stately and arid affair in lesser hands, opens in 1920s Copenhagen, where we first meet Einar (Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Vikander). He is a successful landscape painter and she a lesser portraitist. Theirs is a marriage of fierce loyalty and physical passion without a hint of crisis until Gerda, on a lark, asks her husband to pose in the absence of a female model. Dressed in stockings and pumps, Einar is awakened to long-repressed feelings from childhood, and a Pandora’s Box of personal admissions follows.
After a game of masquerade for an incognito night on the town, Einar quickly finds himself in a full-scale identity crisis. This is difficult, to say the least, for Gerda, who begins losing her husband to another woman—a new one named Lili.
Thus begins Einar’s secret dual life as the artist gradually accepts his new persona while sneaking away to experiment with cross-dressing, and Redmayne’s delicateness at conveying the near-erotic sensations of feeling, for example, his skin on a silk camisole or his legs crossed at the knee, creates a sort of gender fluidity utterly fascinating to watch as the actor eventually disappears first into androgyny and then completely inside of Lili’s soft-spoken femininity.
Much of the picture explores their new and evolving union, which includes a chaste romantic dalliance with a gay bohemian played by Ben Whishaw (in an about-face from his Suffragette machismo), and the arrival of an old friend (an appealingly understated Matthias Schoenarts) who may hold a key to a formative childhood episode.
After painting Lili, Gerda’s floundering career skyrockets, the art world intrigued by her mysterious new model, but the tradeoff is great, and progressive Gerda, played with high emotional intelligence by Vikander, is supportive, frightened and confused, balancing her own needs with her devotion to her husband’s discovery. It is a rich, full-bodied performance that matches Redmayne scene-for-scene.
The Danish Girl is at least as much about Gerda’s own struggle to accept and accommodate Lili into their bohemian marriage as it is about Lili’s embrace of herself, and in one of the film’s best scenes, lonely Gerda begs for Einer to return. Dressed once again in a tuxedo, Lili experiences emotional and physical revulsion. The impact of such a complex scene is indicative of the film’s daring. You simply haven’t seen this before.
In the works for years and originally to star Nicole Kidman as Lili, The Danish Girl benefits from serendipitous contemporary relevance given the hoopla around Caitlyn Jenner and the cultural and social embrace of the transgender community, but as the film cruelly depicts, the times were not a changin’ in 1920s Copenhagen, and the film does not shy from such horrors.
As Lili boldly embraces her identity, this handsome, civilized film explores the uncivilized obstacles trangender people encounter, including public phobia and all manner of barbaric medical diagnoses and disfiguring treatments. For Lili, things look increasingly bleak. But then German star Sebastian Koch shows up as a Dresden doctor who agrees to conduct the first ever gender reassignment surgery. With Gerda’s unending support, Lili embarks on the highly experimental and dangerous procedure. But can she ever be self-actualized, or at least at peace?
Redmayne’s work here is entrancing, almost hypnotic, and perhaps even more accomplished than his Oscar-winning performance in last year’s The Theory of Everything. Never one to project alpha male intensity with his porcelain skin, crane’s neck, lithe gait and measuredly soft cadences, his personification here of his own feminine doppleganger never feels like a stunt. Rather, he brings a physical agility and psychological acuity so precise that Lili becomes a wholly original, libertarian, radical version of the self, identity as an act of revolution. It is all in his performance, and he will be rewarded with another Oscar nod this year.
Vikander, the Swedish star who has shone so brightly this year in movies like Ex Machina and Testament of Youth, an overlooked masterwork, vividly creates an indelible portrait of a woman as surprised by her husband’s transition as by her own ability to conceive of and embrace it, every reaction imbued with emotion, to which the actress appears to have unlimited access.