What would you do when you believe you are a woman trapped in man’s body, you still love your wife, it’s the 1920s and gender reassignment surgery has only been pioneered once, unsuccessfully? This is the dilemma faced by Einar Wegener (alias Lili Elbe) in The Danish Girl.
Loosely based on the 2000 biographical novel of the same name, The Danish Girl traces the lives of husband and wife Einar and Gerda Wegener. Poor but happy, they are both artists and struggling to make a living.
When one of Gerda’s clients fails to arrive for a sitting, Einar is talked into wearing her shoes, stockings and dress. The client arrives and names him Lili after the flowers she has brought with her. Einar dresses as Lili as a joke at a function. However he finds the experience more enjoyable than he imagined. The film builds and Einar spends less time as himself and more time as Lili which creates tension in his once happy marriage.
Finally Einar/Lili cannot live as a man and consults several specialists for a solution but to no avail. A Dresden surgeon offers to perform the sex reassignment surgery in two sessions. The first operation goes well and Lili returns for the second and finally feels a complete woman. Her life is complete, or is it?
The film’s two central characters, Eninar/Lili (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander), carry the weight of the film. It could have easily become just a film about a man dressed as a woman, but Redmayne and Vikander make it so much more.
Redmayne is fragile, vulnerable and compelling in every scene, totally believable as a man trapped in a woman’s body. Vikander takes us through a roller coaster of emotions, love for Einar/Lili, grief, loss and betrayal. She is a perfect match for Redmayne and they feed from each other’s talent.
The rest of the main cast complement Redmayne and Vikander while also being totally rounded characters – Henrik (Ben Whishaw), Lili’s homosexual friend; Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), Einar’s childhood friend; and Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), the reassignment surgeon who gives Lili her new life.
Careful direction by Tom Hooper ensured that the sensitivity of the piece or performances never waned and that the film moved along at a gentle pace.
The costumes, wigs and makeup are worthy of special mention. They are true to the period and give a wonderful sense of warmth and authenticity to the film.
A timely film in these times of transgender and gender reassignment, The Danish Girl gives us a sympathetic glimpse into the people who bravely seek to find fulfilment. At the end of the film I didn’t know whether to applaud, cry, or both.
Reviewed by Barry Hill
Rating out of 10: 10