Directed by—Tom Hooper
The Danish Girl is a powerful, yet sensitive, portrait of the transgender pioneer, Lili Elbe. Based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same, and loosely inspired by the lives of Danish painters Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, the onscreen adaptation of this unique book is director Tom Hooper’s latest film. He is renowned for his cinematic adaptations of historical events (see Les Miserables, 2012). The tale that unfolds is a thoroughly English bio-drama that follows the life of Lili Elbe, and her long and difficult transition into life as a woman in the 1920s.
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The journey isn’t easy for either painter, and we are submerged into their story in Copenhagen circa 1926. Struggling portrait artist Gerda (Alicia Vikander) asks her successful husband (an artist too) to pose for a portrait she is painting. After donning an elegant dress, stockings, and slippers, Einar (Eddie Redmayne) begins to reveal a lifelong struggle with identifying as a woman. This sets off a sequence of events, first tentative then irreversible, leaving behind the identity of Einar and instead transforming into Lili Elbe.
What is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the film is the stellar performance from lead actor, Eddie Redmayne. Only a year after he proved his ability for reinvention in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne undergoes an ultimate identity overhaul in his role as the first person to have a sex change via surgery. Surely, for an actor there can be no more alluring challenge, in which the complexity of sexuality is the hinge for the film’s entire diegesis. Fortunately, Redmayne delivers, and his performance can be regarded as another sterling example of just how deeply he can immerse himself into a role. Leaving aside legitimate complaints from the LGBTQ community about the lack of authenticity or courage in having a straight, white male portray a transgender experience; the film’s reluctance to shock or offend will no doubt boost its appeal to a wider middlebrow audience.
Credit must also be given to Redmayne’s co-star, and onscreen wife, Alicia Vikander. Vikander graciously wrestles attention away from her co-star. With Hooper’s assistance, she makes the film just as much about her transformation as it is about Lili’s.
Whenever Danish Girl punctures through, it’s because of the first-rate performances by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. Their chemistry generates incredible tension, frustration, and anger, at Gerda and Einar’s predicament. Einar’s conflict pulls at your heartstrings by making the difficult choice to leave one life behind and embrace another. This leaves Gerda in a situation in which she could lose everything, and it is within this painful truth that she unearths a beautiful and memorable turn.