A portrayal of a transgender life in the late 1920s and early 1930s is inevitably going to be wrought with emotional and physical tensions, tensions which Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander display with grit and purposefulness. With their intense love and physical attraction comes a deep friendship which sees Gerda (Vikander) persuade Einar (Redmayne) to model for a beautiful painting of ballet dancer Ulla, their friend played by Amber Heard (Pineapple Express, 2008; Paranoia, 2013), who can’t make it to the sitting. Delicate filming ensues; Redmayne draws silk stocking over his legs, caressing them with whimsical fascination, and clumsily wriggles his feet into a pair of ivory slippers, Gerda giggling in the background. At this point, it seems to be a game, a necessity called for by the nature of Gerda’s job that sees the gradual development of Lili into a very real, dramatic presence.
Eddie Redmayne charges the tragic story of Lili Elbe with sensitive and complex grace, his drive to tackle the most intricate of characters augmented by this beautifully shot and scripted biopic of the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Alicia Vikander plays Gerda Wegener, wife of Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener who became Lili Elbe. Gerda’s memoir, From Man to Woman, details the journey from Einar to Lili, a touching, tender portrayal of an issue that has recently found a voice in current news and events, but manages to steer clear of pure facts territory by way of Lucinda Coxon’s imaginative, if a little rose-tinted, screenplay. Redmayne is excellent as the effeminate Einar; we despise and adore him in his innocent selfishness, but I took Gerda’s side. As she loses the man she loves to a woman she does not understand, her loyalty to Lili does not waver; it seems that, as the film progresses, she lies perpetually in wait for her husband to appear at the door in his suit with paint palette in hand. The realisation that he is serious, that their fiction is becoming reality, jolts Vikander into seeking solace in Einar’s childhood friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts; Rust and Bone, 2012; Far From The Madding Crowd, 2015), and in turn, Lili finds love in the arms of art dealer Henrik (Ben Wishaw; Brideshead Revisited, 2008; Cloud Atlas, 2012).
The turbulence of Einar and Gerda’s journey, both engaged in their own struggle to come to terms with Einar’s material and psychological transformation, has strong threads that knot them together eternally; stubbornness and dedication to each other’s happiness. Gerda agrees to Einar’s desire to have surgery that has never been attempted on a human before, and Einar’s need to live as his true self is unfaltering. The notion of identity and the lengths a person can go to achieve a true sense of this is significant. Beginning with the naming of Lili, Ulla unwittingly gives Einar another identity to which he is quick to grow attached to, as if Lili has been rolled up within him his whole life, only now unfurling her tendrils to dissolve the masculinity of her corporal self. A poignant scene in which Einar starts work as a shop assistant, making friends as his female self, exemplifies this. It is as if to see Lili in the traditional female sphere confirms the change that we welcome and dread in equal measure.
The Danish Girl herself could be either Lili or Gerda, as the film’s title is uttered once by Hans in reference to Gerda, and yet the very substance of the story is the transformation of Einar Wegener into Lili Elbe; the Danish girl who was originally a man. Tom Hooper’s melancholy story weaves fact and fiction to create not simply an aesthetically pleasing picture, although critics such as Jonathon Romney at The Observer have claimed the intricacies of Einar’s transformation are ‘buried under a glaze of sumptuous design’. However, Redmayne and Vikander provoke musing on the choices that we make as humans, or those that are made for us. Having directed The King’s Speech (2010) and Les Miserables (2012), Hooper has created another picture which studies the challenges of individuals, their restrictions and their methods of coping with the circumstances into which they are thrown.
All images have been sourced from Pinterest.