2015/ UK, Germany, USA
Director: Tom Hooper
Words: R. Topham
A much anticipated biopic about the life of Lili Elbe, an early twentieth century transgender woman and one of the first to attempt gender reassignment surgery, The Danish Girl details a poignant journey through the social construction of gender norms, the relativity of identity, instability, love, commitment and acceptance.
The story of Lili’s transition begins whimsically. Portrait artist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) asks her husband, landscape painter Einar (Eddie Redmayne), to model as a ballet dancer for her latest piece, complete with stockings, shoes and frilly dress. Something, and someone, awakens in him – Lili. She begins her life as Gerda’s muse, growing stronger with every stroke of the brush and liberated by the popularity of Gerda’s work. This is more than life imitating art; this is art stimulating a life, and that life flourishing in ways never before considered.
It is, at times, incredibly uncomfortable viewing. This is credited to Vikander as the concerned and confused wife, and of course Redmayne, who once again proves himself a brave and masterful performer, and a fine example of British talent. The pair bring an electricity and vigour to the characters that surpasses the average paradigm of a young married couple – a wisdom and intimacy seldom portrayed on screen successfully.
The visual elements of The Danish Girl are beautiful and delicate because they had to be in order to compliment the story, script and acting. The protagonists, as artists, lead relatively charmed lives in the Danish capital, and immerse themselves in art galas, fancy clothing and an endless supply of cigarettes. It is noticeable that Lili radiates happiness much more than Einar does. She has been relieved of a life of imprisonment in a body that is not hers, and Redmayne does an outstanding job of exemplifying the nervousness of this new found freedom through coy smiles and blushing at the flattery Lili receives. Lili’s life is portrayed as full of external elegance as well as internal beauty, whereas Einar’s psychological complexity overwhelms his ability to leave the gray area.
Not only was the film appropriately released at a time when transgender rights are finally at the forefront of social and political conversation, but it also delves into morality, self, and the impact of the two in committed relationships. Einar and Gerda had a long and joyous marriage, and though Gerda is happy to use Einar as Lili for the purpose of her paintings, she struggles to accept Lili as permanent, as a person. But, likewise, Einar and Lili are not perfect either. The former is selfish, the latter is materialistic. Director Tom Hooper has gracefully crafted a dramatic and emotional story about people experiencing very real dilemmas to commendable effect.
If Eddie Redmayne doesn’t scoop up all the awards, I’ll be inconsolable for weeks.