Transgender people are a major part of the LGBT(lesbian, gay, bi, transgender) community that tends to be largely overlooked or misunderstood. In recent years, transgendered people are the subject of arts and media, such as Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent, Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black, and Caitlyn Jenner. However, the subject of gender dysmorphia is not explored, as well as questions like “What happens when a person begins to change?” or “How do people cope with a loved one’s transition?”
Such is the case for The Danish Girl, a new film based on the novel of the same name by Dave Ebershoff. Directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), the story centers on the life and struggles of Lili Elbe, who went through one of the world’s first documented sex reassignment surgeries and public transitions.
Set in 1920s Denmark, The Danish Girl focuses on the complex relationship of Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener. Although the young couple are skilled painters, Einar is the most successful, while Gerda is struggling to find the right subject for her work. When a model fails to show up for a sitting, she asks her husband to put on a dress and stockings for the painting session. This moment stirs an awakening in Einar, who begins connecting with feelings that he has kept suppressed for years. As a playful joke, Einar is given the nickname of “Lili.”
What begins as a favor leads to Einar dressing and going out as a woman, whom Gerda passes off as her husband’s cousin. Things change when Gerda catches “Lili” kissing a man named Henrik (Ben Wishaw) at a party. Despite Gerda’s protests that they were playing a game, Einar explains that he identifies as being female:
“There was a moment when I wasn’t me!” he says. “There was a moment when I was just Lili”. Einar goes to a doctor for help but is instead subjected to a fake cure of a radium-based x-ray.
After moving to France, Gerda’s painting career becomes successful but Einar is slowly withdrawing from life and growing weaker. His attempts to keep the Lili side at bay are failing, and Lili is becoming more dominant. Ultimately, Gerda comes to accept this is no longer the person she married and resolves to support her. Both of them try to find doctors for help, but Lili is given quack diagnoses of schizophrenia and homosexuality. These scenes are most troubling, especially how the doctors offer destructive solutions in the form of lobotomies or incarceration in an asylum. Gerda begins seeking solace from Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Einar. Finally, a surgeon offers to perform a series of gender reassignment surgeries, but these are experimental and could be fatal. Despite the risks, Lili is determined to pursue her dream of becoming wholly female.
Redmayne succeeds in portraying not one but two difficult roles. As Einar, he embodies the charismatic, likeable artist and a sad, pensive man who is struggling to keep going. He is endearing and charming, albeit troubled by suppressing his feelings.
“Every morning, I promise myself that I will spend the entire day as a man”, he confesses to his wife. As the film progresses, Einar is seen less frequently, as Lili becomes the main focus of the narrative. This is both unique and strange, in which Einar simply ceases to exist any longer.
As Lili, Redmayne delivers a lively, sensitive performance of a woman who is trying to be herself. Ironically, the actor is quite convincing in a female role, and the resulting effect is uncanny. Yet, the character struggles to shed the male vestiges of Einar and become wholly female. “This is not my body,” she says to the doctor, of Einar’s physique. “I have to let him go.” While Redmayne shows the difficulties Lili faces, the viewer does not get to learn what Lili is feeling.
Alicia Vikander proves to be film’s emotional core in the role of Gerda, who grapples with the changes within her marriage. One of the most heartbreaking scenes depicts Gerda unsuccessfully begging Lili to let her speak to Einar, in which she comes to accept her marriage is ending.
The Danish Girl succeeds in giving focus to the loved ones of transgendered people before, during and after gender transitioning. While Gerda is saddened by the loss of Einar, she does not consider herself a victim and becomes Lili’s closest ally, but the film never explains why she is so willing to do so.
Matthias Schoenarts offers a gentle turn as Hans, who proves to be a supportive confidant of Einar/Lili and Gerda. Although his motives are not fully revealed, he is shown to be accepting of his friend’s transition, saying “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.”
Ben Wishaw’s Henrik makes the most of his screen time pursuing Lili, but it is never explained what he finds attractive about her. Amber Heard has a cameo appearance as Ulla, a friend of the Wegeners who provides little more than exposition. Finally, Sebastian Koch provides a supportive turn as Kurt Warnekros, who is sympathetic to Lili’s plight and keen to help her.
Tom Hooper presents the story with sensitivity rather than sensationalism. Lucinda Coxon’s script keeps the focus on Lili and Gerda’s character arcs, which both depict the struggles each one has to overcome. Hooper does not speculate or theorize how or when the Lili side of Einar took form. Indeed, the only hint of Lili in Einar’s youth is alluded to in a conversation, during which Hans reveals Einar kissed him when they were boys.
The film does make it clear being transgender is not a decision or a choice: at one point, Einar confesses to Gerda, “I think Lili’s thoughts, I dream her dreams; she was always there.” However, there is little exploration of Lili’s psyche as she attempts to navigate life as a woman. The closest the film gets is Einar confessing that he has considered suicide but fears it would kill Lili.
That being said, the film has been the subject of criticism regarding the portrayal of Einar/Lili. Some critics argue the role should have gone to a real trans woman instead of a cisgender actor. However, hormone therapy did not exist during the 1920s, because gender dysmorphia was not officially recognized back then.
The Danish Girl is a solid film that is beautifully-staged and well-acted. Hooper succeeds in tackling subject matter that is not widely understood. Both Redmayne and Vikander deliver gripping performances. Four out of five stars.