THE DANISH GIRL (2015, directed by Tom Hooper, 119 minutes, U.K.)
BY ELIZABETH MARIE WIEST Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) thought-provoking new film The Danish Girl is the true story of Einar Wegener a failed Danish painter whose transition into Lili Erbe marks the first sexual reassignment surgical procedure ever attempted, and her story the first transgender biography ever recorded. The film depicts the evolving relationship of Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), and how his gender identity crisis actually brings the couple closer together.
The year is 1920. Einar and Gerda are living the tranquil bohemian life of two painters in love and by all appearances are the happiest married couple in Denmark since Claudius and Gertrude. However, there is a spot trouble in paradise. The couple can’t conceive despite their best efforts, and to make matters worse, Gerda is suddenly having trouble selling her work. A critic advises her to find a fresh new face to model for her work. With available models apparently in short supply, Gerda enlists Einar to model for her — in drag, and this is where the audience is first clued in to the fact that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
The response amongst critics and patrons to the new face featured in Gerda’s latest work is overwhelmingly positive and suddenly her paintings are among the most coveted in Europe. Meanwhile, Einar begins to realize that he actually enjoys dressing like a woman, in fact he gets off on it. Eventually, the two lightheartedly create a look and a backstory for Einar’s drag persona which they name “Lili.” Soon Lili is the toast of Europe’s art scene glitterati.
Along the way, Einar develops an affinity for Lili and her lifestyle, as he finds himself not only impersonating her, but wanting to become her. As Einar’s identity steadily dissolves into Lili, he begins dressing in drag full time and carrying on secret affairs with men. Naturally, this places a strain on Einar and Gerda marriage, but Gerda doesn’t give up on her marriage so easily. She takes Einar to multiple doctors, seeking a practical explanation for his strange behavior. Becasue this is 1920, decades before gender dysphoria was widely understood, the doctors are perplexed, and prescribe involuntarily committing Einar to a mental hospital for permanent treatment.
Horrified, the couple flees to Paris, where Gerda’s work is revered and the couple starts over. However, not even this drastic life change can salvage their unraveling marriage. The frantic search for a doctor resumes, and the stakes are raised when the couple visits a doctor who accurately diagnoses Einar as transgender, and proposes the unprecedented: gender reassignment surgery. After much soul-searching, the couple agrees to go through with the procedure, but as Lili’s body cannot keep up with the physical strain of the multiple surgeries, she dies during her recovery, having enjoyed only a few precious moments as her true self. Eventually, Gerda converts her grief into a best-selling account of their life together called Man Into Woman. Although Gerda was able to move on to other men, she never got over Lili, and featured her in her paintings for the rest of her life.
The cinematography in The Danish Girl is gorgeous and painterly, especially the breathtaking exterior shots of Copenhagen and Paris. The costuming is sumptuous and period-authentic, particularly Gerda and Lili’s daringly modern flapper-style attire. The script’s occasional weaknesses are more than compensated for by the ring of truth Redmayne and Vikander bring to their performances
As I left the theater, I heard many audience members praising the beautiful establishing shots, the alluring cast, the “Roaring Twenties” time-period costuming, etc. However, I also heard a lot of muttering along the lines of: “While the film was fascinating, it wasn’t realistic. Nobody puts on lipstick one time and decides they are a woman.” Which only serves to reinforce the film’s point: Lili’s story is exactly that, her own story. The artfulness and emotional resonance of The Danish Girl serves to humanize a condition that remains freakish and misunderstood by large stretches of modern society. Gerda’s loving acceptance of her husband’s condition pre-figures the enlightened modern approach to gender dysphoria. Gerda is able to look beyond the superficial trappings of gender — the clothes, the hair, the lipstick, the genitalia — and love the human soul underneath it all.