He rushes his hands through dresses in rich silk and brocade across a green room, making his way to a full-length slightly dusty mirror at the back. There he takes off his clothes, runs his hands over himself, tucks his privates in to resemble a woman’s, and turns slightly to look at his slim body now sheathed in a dress. And then he smiles.
In a film so clothed in layers of perfect montages, that is one scene that speaks in entire starkness. Struggling with the conflicting emotions he has been experiencing since he donned women’s stockings and shoes to pose for a painting, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) has taken his first decisive step towards becoming Lili Elbe.
The Danish Girl is based on a best-seller novel, in turn only loosely inspired by the story of the Danish painter and transgender pioneer, who became one of the first known people to undergo sex change surgery. Director Tom Hooper, who handled a marriage and a husband with issues in The King’s Speech too, and has worked with Redmayne before in Les Miserables, mounts his film like a work of art. From the houses in Denmark orange to the boats on Copenhagen lakes, from the light drifting in through the windows to the sky visible outside, from the large bare houses to the plush galleries, and one truly impressive scene where Einar/Lili copies a prostitute’s gestures watching through a screen at a Paris brothel, Hooper gets everything right. The problem is that his Einar/Lili is etched in the same perfect strokes. You are impressed, you are not moved.
With his androgynous looks that leave him never too handsome but never too un-pretty either, Redmayne is an inspired choice to play Einar. However, last year’s Oscar winner and this year’s Academy nominee is too glib with those tilts of the head, the fluttering of the lashes, the teary eyes, and the delicate placement of the hands – his ‘performance’ leaning more towards the portraits his wife paints of him rather than a man in anguish over what is happening to his body.
That brings us to the wife, Gerda Wegener, an accomplished and, some insist, more talented painter than Einar who didn’t find a market for a long time for her portraits till her husband started posing as Lili for her. Gerda is played by Vikander, a new star on the block. And of all the people who inhabit this portrait of an artist as a man/woman, she is the only one who leaps off the canvas.
Gerda and Einar have a beautiful marriage, including both companionship and sexual attraction. So when Einar starts giving way to Lili, Gerda loses more than a husband. Gerda loves Einar too much to give vent to her anger and frustration, and Vikander brings out her struggles admirably. She seeks medical help as Einar fights doubt, she raises the funds for his surgeries, she rushes to the bedside when Lili undergoes the first of her operations, and she is even there to hold Lili’s hand during heartbreaks and crushes on other men.
The real Gerda-Lili tale wasn’t as straightforward a love story as The Danish Girl makes it out to be. There was less conflict between the two of them, in the bohemian world they came to inhabit in Paris art world, as within Lili herself. At the same time, the Gerda-Lili parts are the best portions of the film, including her initial sexual excitement at finding her husband dressed in her night-dress.
She died penniless (a fact brushed out of the film); he died to become the face of the transgender movement. Vikander demands a Gerda story.
Director: Tom Hooper
Star cast of The Danish Girl: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Wikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw