Something’s gorgeous in Denmark
THE DANISH GIRL, drama, rated R; in French, German, and English, with subtitles; Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles
To get first things out of the way first, some eye-catching acting is on display in The Danish Girl. Eddie Redmayne, winner of last year’s best actor Academy Award for his portrayal of ALS-burdened physicist Stephen Hawking, tosses his hat in the ring again with another physically challenging Oscarbait performance as Lili Elbe, née Einar Wegener, a Danish painter who in the early 1930s became a transgender pioneer. It’s a gutsy performance from Redmayne, who brings to it a touch of androgyny that plays into the character and makes a persuasive, if sometimes simpering, woman (the real Lili Elbe, it should be noted, described herself as a “thoughtless, flighty, very superficially minded woman”). Just as good, perhaps even better, is Alicia Vikander (Testament of Youth, Ex Machina), who brings enormous sympathy to the role of Einar’s artist wife, Gerda, without the benefit of torment and confusion on which to hang her character.
Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) wades into treacherous waters with this bit of fictionalized history. The based-ona-true-story genre is mined with hazards, as people debate whether history is done a disservice by the creative license in which filmmakers indulge. And when the topic is as emotionally charged as gender identity has become, it carries its own set of risks, as concerned audiences seize on its inaccuracies or distortions. Activists have decried the casting of a non-transgendered actor in the central role in this movie.
When we meet the Wegeners, they seem to be a happily married couple with a lively heterosexual sex life. Both are accomplished artists — Einar is a successful landscape painter, Gerda a struggling portraitist. Things begin to change when one afternoon Gerda’s model fails to show up on time, and she asks her husband to put on a pair of silk stocking and heels and strike the pose she’s working on. He’s reluctant at first but discovers something thrilling in the feel of a woman’s garments.
And thus begins the emergence of Lili Elbe. It progresses into something like an alternate personality, with Lili, in full drag, passed off as Einar’s sister and nobody seeming too concerned that they’ve never been seen in the same place at the same time. The Lili personality begins to take hold and becomes more difficult for Einar to resist. Eventually she finds a doctor (Sebastian Koch) who understands the concept of gender miscasting and is pursuing pioneering work in reassignment surgery. The rest, heroically and tragically, is history.
Hooper, working with screenwriter Lucinda Coxon’s smooth adaptation of David Ebershoff’s novel about the Wegeners, has crafted a beautiful picture. The photography, the sets, the costumes are pitch perfect. But there’s a sense of emotional distance that the movie never quite manages to shake. Maybe it’s too tasteful, too careful. What Lili Elbe did was terrifyingly bold. The movie is elegant and safe.
I feel pretty: Eddie Redmayne