Let us all forget that Les Miserables ever happened and sit back for Tom Hooper’s latest touching drama about Lili Elbe, the first transgender woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the early 20th century. The Danish Girl, beautifully penned by Lucinda Coxton, took nearly 15 years to get made, with countless directors and stars attached to the project. The film was based on a novel – a fictionalised account of Elbe’s life – by American author David Ebershoff.
Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is an esteemed painter in 1920s Copenhagen. His wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander) is also an artist and illustrator, though struggling to get her work noticed. One day, Gerda asks Einar to pose as a woman for her. Einar realises that his entire life has been a deception, trying to inhabit a man’s body. He thus begins living as a woman called Lili Elbe. Although Gerda initially tries to save her marriage she soon realises that the man she married had never existed. Helped by childhood friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), Lili decides to undertake a dangerous operation which will enable her to fully become a woman.
Redmayne and Vikander possibly give this year’s best performances as Einar/Lili and Gerda. In fact, it is Vikander which often steals the scene and confirms herself as one of the best actresses around. It is a heart wrenching roller coaster on both sides – for Gerda, who needs to come to terms with the fact that Einar, the man she loved, never existed; and for Lili who needs to undergo such an intense and excruciating journey before finally committing to her true self. Less successful are the secondary characters of Einar’s childhood friend, Hans (played by Schoenaerts), and Lili’s admirer, Henrik (Ben Whishaw) – whose only role in the script seems to be that of offering an occasion for love interests for the protagonists.
Occasionally, the story seems slightly clunky and overly voyeuristic – the way the films depicts ‘Lili’s origins’ feels awkward in places. Moreover, there seems to be hardly any sense of danger when Lili decides to undergo the sex reassignment surgery. An operation like that would have been off the chartered territory at the time, no doubt a excruciating experience (Lili died three months after her fourth operation) – yet even this is captured with candid beauty, hardly giving us any sense of the pain and physical changes Lili underwent. Ultimately, beyond all the frocks and wigs, we know very little about who Lili truly was. The film only indulges on it for a few moments when we finally scratch the surface and Lili talks about her future as a woman, the hope for marriage and possibly children one day.
Though the film is deeply moving and masterfully acted by leads Redmayne and Vikander we cannot but notice how the pristine beauty of it occasionally gets in the way of the storytelling – everything is remarkably pretty and never incurs in the danger of unsettling the viewer * eye-blink to the Academy *. Having said that, The Danish Girl is certainly worth seeing and no doubt one of this year’s strong contenders at the Oscars.
The Danish Girl is released in UK cinemas on New Year’s Day 2016.