A heartbreaking story about Lili, a transgender pioneer.
‘The Danish Girl’ and ‘Joy’ were both released on January 1st 2016 in the U.K. Though the films have relatively little in common otherwise they do share one primary similarity- both are a blending of fact and fiction. Both stories are about real life people, with a degree of dramatic license for supposed cinematic development. However it is in this area that ‘Joy’ somewhat stumbles whereas ‘The Danish Girl’ soars. A brief bit of post-film research will identify these aspects of fiction, yet it is an act that is perhaps unnecessary as any and all fabrications in ‘The Danish Girl’ add to moving story that unfolds.
Portrait artist Gerda Wegenger (Alicia Vikander) and popular landscape artist Einar (Eddie Redmayne) have been married for six years. They have a comfortable life in the cultural bourgeois heart of Copenhagen. Their friends in the arts note with a degree of envy about how happy they are, how well suited they are together and how lucky they were to find each other. It’s true, they balance each other out perfectly. When their dancer friend Ulla (Amber Heard) cancels a sitting for Gerda at the last minute, Gerda asks her husband to pose instead. The act of posing as a female figure appears to cement something, an awareness that Einar has had for sometime, and marks his progression of leaving behind the identity of Einar. Tentatively at first, yet soon quite rapidly, Einar begins to progress in his lifelong identification of being a woman, becoming Lili Elbe.
Lili Elbe was one of the first identifiable recipients of gender reassignment surgery, with her first operation in the process have taken place in Germany in 1930. Her personal letters and diary entries which record her journey, were published under the title “Man Into Woman” (1933) which was one of the first texts to draw a distinction between homosexuality and transexuality. Though ‘The Danish Girl’ is being billed as a ‘true story’, some of its primary details are proven to not be, yet arguably can it be viewed as a ‘true story’ as it accesses an inner-truth?
Redmayne’s portrayal as Einar is heartbreaking, as we watch a conflicted person finally accept themselves whilst all too-aware of the devastation it could cause the love of their life..His portrayal as Lili is just as emotive, as we observe a person joyous at finally being comfortable in their own skin yet restrained by an era that is not ready and cannot provide provision nor understanding. Vikander’s Gerda is sublime, conveying so much with a subtle yet equally devastating performance.Her want for her love to be happy clashes with her want with him to stay her love, a turmoil that emits from every expression and mannerism. The third star of the film has to be the cinematographer Danny Cohen, whose use of the camera makes the beautiful sets look lush and the beautiful leads look vibrant.
Overall the story itself seems rather familiar, offering little that is perhaps surprising. But this is not a criticism, in fact rather something of a compliment as a more ambitious narrative may have taken away from the film’s central core in its observing of Einar’s journey. Though perhaps the story could have gotten under the character’s skin slightly more and not have seemingly polished some of the darker edges of the character’s stories. However, if you’re looking for a poignant and caricature-free look at one person’s struggle for acceptance within themselves and their community, this is a great place to start.
The two compelling lead performances deserve to be watched.