Film review: The Danish Girl

by **


In The Danish Girl Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, an accomplished landscape painter who, when we meet him in 1926, is holding a solo exhibition in his home city of Copenhagen, where he lives with his wife of six years, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). She, too, is a painter, although her efforts in portraiture are, at the opening of the film, yet to receive similar recognition.

Despite Gerda’s ambivalence towards her husband’s success — a mixture of pride and envious rivalry — the couple enjoy a healthy sexual relationship and are trying for a baby. So when Gerda discovers she has had her period, a second blow, after suffering rejection in her professional endeavours, Einar feels obliged to fulfil her request and stand in for a woman-model, whose busy schedule has kept her away, to help Gerda towards completing her work.

As Einar starts to pull the sheer stocking up his leg, holding the dress close against his chest, however, something (or, really, someone) stirs within him like a female twin waking from a long slumber. In one bedroom scene afterwards Gerda finds him wearing her lingerie snug under his shirt.

Acknowledging the hitherto-unseen face that has seemed to emerge from inside Einar, Gerda begins to paint the new guest in their household, whom they soon come to call Lili. Only Lili is here to stay, edging out Einar more and more, until Gerda finds her husband kissing another man at a party in which the playful wife has introduced the painfully shy girl as Einar’s cousin.

Based on David Ebershoff’s novel, a fictionalised account of the true story surrounding Einar Wegener (and Gerda), in the Danish artist’s quest to transform himself from man to woman, making him one of the first candidates to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, Tom Hooper’s latest feature documents the wave of pathos that sweeps through transgenders and, with no less strength, that which crashes upon their spouses.

The movie is beautifully acted and Redmayne and Vikander let us see how the chemistry between Einar and Gerda develops from being heterosexually heated to become one of an unconditional sisterly affection.

The anguish behind Vikander’s quivering, dark eyes on a brave face Gerda carries in unyielding support of her rapidly-fading husband, sometimes falling helplessly into the arms of Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), a man whose love she stoically declines out of singular devotion to Einar, is deeply convincing.

And Redmayne’s trembling fingers on the soft fabric of frocks, his febrile observation of feminine movements, the bashful joy evoked by men’s attention, are reminiscent of a pubescent child growing up into a woman in full, sensuous bloom.

In one revealing sequence half-way through the two-hour production Lili stands nude before a mirror, tucking Einar’s penis and testicles between her legs, and arches round to glance back at the curve of her buttocks.

As Gerda goes on to earn fame and plaudits for her portraits of Lili, Hooper delicately shows that art reflects inner consciousness and identity in a way mirrors cannot. That Gerda is portrayed as an artist who details accurately what she sees in front of her must also mean she truly believes Lili lives in a man’s body like precious few in the then-society do.

Hooper’s nuanced direction combines with the stunning cinematography to also articulate that Einar’s works in landscapes of his childhood village that he did repeatedly and purely by memory had had to come from a place intrinsic in him. Like Lili. “She was always there,” she confides in Gerda. 

If there is any criticism of the film, it is, for me, that the closing text before the credits roll potentially misleads one to think The Danish Girl is a non-fictional narrative. It takes a half-hearted search through the internet to learn about the actual (albeit alleged) circumstances around the 20th-century bohemians, and to discover a plethora of unfavourable reviews on how far the movie deviates from history.

There is nothing wrong with fictionalising reality — it happens all the time — but only if the audience is duly made aware. Misinformation destroys in an instant the magic that, in this case, has taken years to nurture.