EINAR WEGENER’s (EDDIE Redmayne) cri de coeur, “I don’t want to be a painter, I want to be a woman” is at the heart of this beautifully crafted (every shot is meticulously framed and lit) movie about identity and self realization. The story follows the lives of the Danish married couple Einar and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). They are both artists; he, a lionized landscape artist, she, a talented by up-and-coming, unrecognized portrait artist. It is during the process of creation, when she asks him to hold a dress against his body and assume the pose of a model she is in the process of painting, that Einar’s long hidden, deeply buried self identification as a woman surfaces.
From that point, with Gerda almost as his visual diarist, the twinned stories emerge: He slowly, frighteningly transforms himself (despite the moralizing opprobrium of the medical community) from Einar to Lilli; from a male artist to a female shop girl. She blossoms from woman to painter; from a run-of-the-mill portraitist to a feted artist, celebrated for her large, honest, studies of Lilli, Einar’s alter ego.
His transgender journey to realize his identity (as a woman) is paralleled by her journey to actualize hers (as an artist).
The movie is a dramatization of the –actual- earliest attempt to execute the surgical changes necessary for this kind of gender transformation. And it makes the point that this is no weird, aberrant desire, but that our sense of our sex is a fundamental part of our understanding of who we are. It is the deepest entrenched idea that informs both how we see ourselves and how we’re seen. (There’s a nice moment at the beginning of the movie when Gerda is painting an obviously uncomfortable man. Relax, she – more or less -tells him, as she tartly observes the nature of his discomfort: “men aren’t accustomed to being so closely observed by others, especially not by a woman; but such observation is our everyday reality”…men can escape their gender; women are often defined by theirs)
“The Danish Girl” is a story about both Einar and Gerda. The title refers to them both. Her need to establish her identity freed from her gender: as an artist first and woman/wife etc. second, is as meaningful as his need to form an identity based on gender…to be, and be seen…observed…as a woman.
And underlying it all is the love that holds them together; for perhaps, it is suggested, at its deepest level, love transcends sexual attraction…happens not just between sexes, but between people (he may have morphed into she, but his/her ‘being’ remains the same).
Just as the story is about these twinned reference points of identity, the kudos of the movie goes to its two extraordinary actors. Once again, as he did as Stephen Hawkins (in “The Theory of Everything”), Eddie Redmayne disappears into the role. We suffer along with his character as he morphs convincingly from man to woman…and never to man in drag. As Gerda, Alicia Vikander (2015 has certainly been her year: “Ex-Machina”, “Man From Uncle” “Burnt” and now this) perhaps has the harder role (as the straight man?) to balance our attention away from the obvious point of focus on Einar’s transforming self. She’s the sexy, fearless, faithful, determined, insecure point of steadfastness and calm in a partnership facing its own unique crisis.
Director Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables”, “The King’s Speech”) has assembled his tremendous team (his cinematographer, production designer, art director, costume designer, and editor all worked with him on “Les Miz”) to evoke, as if seen through the landscape art of the time (it’s the late 1920’s), the world of Denmark and Paris. “The Danish Girl” is perhaps one of the most densely visual, pictorial movies since Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner”.
And this visual richness is not at all some sort of self-conscious artiness, but totally in service to an underlying theme that knits the movie together: the power of art to shape our opinions and perspectives; not just the art of Einar and Gerda, but the art of “The Danish Girl” itself.
(Now if only we could get those many other viciously anti LGBT cultures, trapped in their nineteenth century moralities, to sit up and take note)
THE DANISH GIRL. Dir Tom Hooper. With Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben WIshaw, Amber Herd. Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon (from the book by David Ebershoff). Cinematographer: Danny Cohen. Production Designer: Eve Stewart. Art Director: Tom Weaving