In the past few years, high-profile musicians like Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace and celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner have brought public awareness to transgender issues, letting their own stories personalize a movement that too often has been kept in the shadows, mostly for fear of how the wider world would respond. As brave as these individuals have been, they at least had a history of those who had come before them, the early pioneers in gender confirmation surgery who blazed a trail.
One of those reluctant pioneers was Lili Elbe, a painter living in Copenhagen in the 1920s who underwent what was then a radical procedure to have her penis removed and a vagina constructed for her. But as The Danish Girl suggests, Lili’s desire had nothing to do with being at the forefront of a movement but, rather, a profound need to finally be herself and nullify the original body given to her. This sensitive, sometimes superb drama suffers from a bit of Oscar-bait solemnity, but on the whole it’s a touching tale of identity and love. In the process, The Danish Girl is also a poignant look at a marriage between two likeminded souls who had to let each other go.
The film begins in 1926 as Einar Wegener (Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne) has been happily married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander) for a few years. Both painters, the couple enjoys a loving, slightly kinky relationship: Einar gets a thrill wearing Gerda’s stockings and nightgowns, and when Gerda finds one of her negligees under Einar’s shirt, she gets turned on. At first, it feels merely like flirty playacting, but the more Einar enjoys dressing up as a woman, especially in public, the more Einar begins referring to this alter ego as Lili, treating the persona as if she’s a separate individual from Einar.
The Danish Girl is about how Lili learns to accept the truth about her identity—that the “Lili” persona is actually her authentic self. From an early age, she knew that she was a woman, but at a time when such an admission would be interpreted as a sign of mental illness—and could send the “sufferer” to a loony bin—Lili has learned to keep quiet. That self-denial can’t last much longer, though, and director Tom Hooper (who won an Oscar for The King’s Speech) and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (adapting David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel) chart this gradual acknowledgment by both Lili and Gerda.
Redmayne won his Best Actor Oscar for last year’s The Theory of Everything, and the two movies share several similarities, not the least of which is that both are based on true stories. More crucially, however, both films are love stories in which the happy couples don’t end up together, the narratives detailing how the lovers come to understand that an individual’s desires must ultimately trump the relationship. In The Danish Girl, this conceit becomes a useful way to dramatize Lili’s growing anguish over wanting to claim her femininity. As the film explains it, this wasn’t just a journey that she went on—her wife shared it.
Not surprisingly, this is delicate subject matter, and Hooper (working with cinematographer Danny Cohen, composer Alexandre Desplat and production designer Eve Stewart) drapes the film in a respectful tastefulness, personalizing Lili’s quest in order to emphasize its universal themes. Not unlike other period films about fights for equality, The Danish Girl plays on a viewer’s sense of justice and compassion, painting Lili as a sympathetic, quietly heroic figure trying to find contentment. And in Redmayne, Hooper (who previously directed him in 2012’s Les Misérables) has found an actor who’s fragile and beautiful, Einar’s gorgeous looks commented on by the film’s other characters. There’s an undeniably feminine quality to Redmayne’s eyes and lips, but he doesn’t overdo Lili’s mannerisms to sell us on her need to transition, nor does the actor attempt to radically transform himself in the role as he needed to do when portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Quite the contrary, during Lili’s first scenes in public dressed as a woman, Redmayne is a bit timid, showing her vulnerably putting out a tentative first step into a new life.
But just as important to The Danish Girl’s success is Vikander, who plays a woman in love with her husband, only slowly realizing that Lili’s path will inevitably pull them apart. Hers might be the trickier role because Gerda, too, is a sympathetic figure in this drama. Initially encouraging Einar to become comfortable wearing dresses and putting on makeup—to be the Lili persona at balls, where the married couple tells onlookers that she’s Gerda’s cousin—Gerda can’t possibly know that what at first seems like playful experimentation will end up a profound transition for her husband. Gracefully, Vikander (having a breakout year thanks to this year’s Ex Machina) negotiates the character’s conflicted emotions, supporting her husband but also feeling frustration that Lili’s searching has come to dominate their marriage, leaving little room for Gerda’s needs. (Along those lines, an old classmate of Lili’s, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, begins to fall for Gerda, sensing how lonely she is. Gerda is perhaps tempted, but she remains loyal to Lili, even if that only guarantees heartbreak for herself.)
There have been complaints leveled against The Danish Girl for casting a cisgender male star in the role of Lili, criticism that Redmayne has addressed by stressing the amount of conversations he had with transgender individuals, such as his Jupiter Ascending director Lana Wachowski. (“I felt like, ‘I’m being given this extraordinary experience of being able to play this woman, but with that comes this responsibility of not only educating myself but hopefully using that to educate [an audience],’” he recently told Out. “Gosh, it’s delicate. And complicated.”) And Redmayne is certainly not the first to face this criticism: Jared Leto’s casting as a transgender character in Dallas Buyers Club was also condemned in some quarters, even though he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role.
Without diminishing the need to promote transgender actors, such as Kiki Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor in this summer’s superb indie Tangerine, let it be said that Redmayne plays Lili not as a victim but as a woman scared but also emboldened by her sense of herself. Lili visits psychologists and doctors looking for an answer to her “malady,” but when they are of no help, diagnosing her as schizophrenic or simply prescribing a little radiation to cure her, she comes to realize that there’s actually nothing wrong with her.
Lili Elbe is remembered for being a pioneer as one of the first to undergo gender confirmation surgery, but what’s so moving about The Danish Girl is that Hooper and his cast remind us that many years of anxiety and courage went into that decision. Transgender activists want others to understand that transition is not merely a “surgery” or a “procedure”: It’s a process, a journey, a new way of thinking about oneself. The Danish Girl becomes a little too preciously poetic near the end as Lili undergoes her surgery, but before then it honors that journey, showing Lili a kindness and respect she probably didn’t experience too much in her own life. But, importantly, the movie also honors Gerda, whose unwavering love helped make a pioneer’s path a little less fraught.