The Danish Girl tells the true story of landscape artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) who became Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery.
The title is misleading though. The story is just as much about the experiences of Einar’s loyal and selfless wife, Gerder (Alicia Vikander), who was also a painter. Indeed, a line in the film strongly implies that, in fact, it is her who is the Danish girl of the title.
The film starts with the husband and wife enjoying a seemingly happy and fulfilled life in 1920s Copenhagen. Their world is gradually turned upside down when Einar, after posing for Gerder in women’s clothing when her model fails to show, increasingly comes to the realisation he must live his life as a woman.
The film is initially slow to get going and rather plods long at first, waiting for something significant to happen. However, the gentle pacing allows greater character development and, as the couple’s story unfolds, this creates a deeper empathy for their plight.
All the headlines will inevitably go to Eddie Redmayne for his transformation into a woman for the role. Redmayne does a fine job of portraying Lili’s increasing confidence as a woman after her understandably awkward initial experimentation. It could be argued he somewhat overdoes the bashful smiles and averted gazes, but surely there is no right or wrong way to behave when you’re a complete pioneer?
However, this is undoubtedly Vikander’s film. She beautifully captures the heartache of someone still deeply in love, but gradually coming to the painful realisation she is losing the husband, and life, she knew forever. There are also strong support turns from Sebastian Koch as Lili’s surgeon and Matthias Schoenaerts as art dealer Hans Axgil.
While it’s nicely shot, the film has a somewhat escapist ‘Sunday night BBC period drama’ feel to it. The opulent locations and costumes make you want to time-travel back to 1920s Copenhagen, Paris or pre-WW2 Dresden. Even a supposedly seedy area of Paris looks rather inviting.
This is an important film for the transgender community, particularly in terms of its high profile. Its clear theme and message is that transgender is no more a matter of choice than gay or straight.
It’s impossible not to be moved by Lili’s story or to admire her bravery at a time when there was even more prejudice and ignorance than there is today. It’s also hard to find fault with The Danish Girl, but somehow the film never quite soars as high as you’d hope.