The Danish Girl, the latest from director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) takes place in the full swing of 1920s Copenhagen, relating the real-life story of married painters Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) and their story of discovery and quite literal transformation.
The pair are supportive partners in all things, each practically staying out of the other’s artistic way. One day after Ulla (Amber Heard in a surprisingly cheery and unexpected turn) fails to show up for a painting that Gerda is working on, Gerda has Einar step into stockings and women’s shoes for the sake of completing her work. At first, Einar exhibits an embarrassed incredulity at the request, but through the awkwardness of his encounter he begins to discover a world of desire for women’s clothing articles.
Initially, Einar’s experience is merely tactile, as Einar sensually strokes dresses and scarfs. The necessity of Gerda’s desire to finish her painting quickly transforms into an innocent game of dress up for Einar, while Gerda manages to discover a bit of arousal in the naive and innocent game. Einar takes the name of Lili – after one of Ulla’s cousins – and begins dressing up as Lili at public gatherings and parties. With the exception of the real Ulla, everyone believes Lili is a real woman. It doesn’t take too long before men begin to take notice, one of which is Henrik (Ben Whishaw), who takes a liking to Lili and plants a kiss on her.
Unbeknownst to Lili, Gerda watches on from a distance, as confused as Einar. Troubled by what was supposed to be a mere game, Einar slowly starts to take on the persona of Lili, no longer wishing to return to life as Einar, and embarks on an emotional and physical quest to unearth her true identity as Lili Elbe. As one would expect, Gerda is filled with anger and confusion, unable to understand Einar’s predicament, but soon comes around to be one of Lili’s few supporters.
Eddie Redmayne, once again, becomes lost in his performance, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t make a beautiful woman. Redmayne completely transforms from Einar into Lili with convincing fearlessness, picking up feminine mannerisms and movements with unrestrained ability. His journey of sexual identity and the pain that comes through it is evidenced in Redmayne’s facial expressions. His pain isn’t just singular; as Einar is as guilty and regretful of his choice and what it means to his wife Gerda.
And while the film understandably belongs to Redmayne, it’s nearly stolen by Alicia Vikander as the supportive but conflicted Gerda. She wants what’s best for her husband, but feels alone in the process knowing that accepting Lili, ultimately, means the “death” of Einar. Vikander gives a powerhouse performance as the artist whose success is attributed to her new muse as Copenhagen and Paris become infatuated with her Lili paintings, managing to exhibit strength despite her resentment.
But Gerda’s support of Einar/Lili may also be due to the conditional love she retains for the man she married, something that, as convoluted as their relationship becomes, simply doesn’t just go away.
The journey from Einar to Lili is carefully and meticulously handled by director Tom Hooper, evoking an intimate world of close-up as Einar discovers femininity through the material zeitgeist of the swinging 20s. Einar gently strokes the hems of dresses and flowing scarves as he begins to experience – and embrace – a softer and gentler world, without the restraints of male gender roles with Hooper taking the time and attention to make an internal joyous discovery external. Einar goes from the rigidity of his proper male attire, pre-arranged suits with stiff collars to the flowing and freedom of gowns worn by Gerda.
Furthermore, Hooper never dips his brush into political controversy, choosing instead to take careful care of Einar’s very personal struggle in finding his true self, never allowing for the film to take on more than it can handle. The film depicts a progressive era that accepts homosexuality yet still holds an aversion to transgendered individuals, exploring the newest frontier in sexuality both then and now.
The Danish Girl is a fascinating character study of the bounds of true love and finding and accepting one’s truest self. Hooper’s film is touching and emotional, with profound performances from Redmayne and Vikander. The film has received flak from other film critics for being a safe picture, perhaps under the zeitgeist of the year of Caitlyn Jenner. However, by not politicizing his film Hooper has elected to reach out to the humanism of his characters, focusing on what sexuality and identity means to the individuals involved, instead on irrelevant reality television implications.