If you thought Eddie Redmayne transformed himself for his Oscar-winning role of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, prepare for a performance that is even more intimate as transgender pioneer Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl.
Equal praise is due husky-voiced Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), passionate and compelling as Gerda Wegener, Einar’s steadfast wife and liberating helpmate.
Set in late-1920s Copenhagen, The Danish Girl is about two women: Lili and Gerda. That sets up Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) gorgeous-looking drama for its larger purpose, as a love story and an examination of a marriage. It is as much about these issues as it is Lili’s search for her true self through then unheard-of gender-reassignment surgeries.
These struggles are far removed from Caitlyn Jenner and The Danish Girl misses its chance to be truly groundbreaking in taking on a pioneer’s story. It’s actually a rather conventional romance that takes few storytelling risks.
As Danish landscape painter Einar, later reborn as Gerda’s muse and heartbreak, Lili, Redmayne’s transformation to a female self requires some bravery on the part of the actor. That makes up for the shortcomings in Lucinda Coxon’s script and the movie’s nagging sense of disconnection from its audience.
Lili’s transition is believable because of the actor’s androgynous looks and careful mannerisms, admirable in a dreamily shot scene where Einar attends a Paris peep show. It’s not to look at the naked women (certainly of interest to a one who dreams of having their bodies) but to learn to mimic their languid movements.
Initially presented as a couple in love and not shy about sharing passions, Einar and Gerda are both are artists. A landscape painter, he is the more successful, while Gerda struggles for acceptance with her portrait work.
She asks Einar to sit in for a missing ballerina friend Oola (Amber Heard) so she can complete a commission, insisting Einar slip on the silk stockings and hold her satin tutu to his slight frame to help her with perspective. The exercise awakens something that Redmayne conveys in a few silent beats: surprise, desire, shame.
With a bouquet of flowers thrust into Einar’s arms, Lili is both born and named.
Lili’s emergence isn’t an impediment to the marriage. Indeed, Gerda is a modern woman.
While the evolution from a thrilled-yet-terrified first public appearance as “cousin Lili” to living life as a woman forms the centre of the film, Gerda’s conflict over the gradual loss of her husband and her desire to help Lili is never far from the frame.
Redmayne is very good and often heartbreaking, longing always evident in his careful mannerisms. With his hands fluttering, primly folded or deliberately framing his face, every movement seems to beg for reassurance. “Am I pretty?”
Einar continues to fade and Lili is fully present, although both talk about Lili in the third person as they seek a permanent solution.
Finding a German doctor able to begin the physical process of “curing me of the sickness that was my disguise,” will give Lili peace. But it will come at great cost to the one who loves her most.