A good hundred years before Caitlyn Jenner came along, there was Lili Elbe. One of the most high-profile people to have sex reassignment surgery, Lili started out life as Einar Wegener, who was famous in 1920s Copenhagen as a landscape painter. Einar was married to Gerda Gottleib, herself an artist, though she was nowhere near as celebrated as her husband.
THE DANISH GIRL is based on the 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff. The author has said that his version of Lili’s/Einar’s life is a fictionalised account and the same is true with the film. In real life, Einar and Gerda’s marriage may have been one of convenience, as there has been much speculation over the years that the two of them were gay. Certainly, during the year that Einar took on the persona of Lili prior to the surgery, he/she and Gerda lived quite openly in Paris as a lesbian couple. (The timeline of events in both the book and the movie was shifted, and their sexual tastes were muted.)
In the film, Gerda (Alicia Vikander, EX MACHINA) is painting a portrait of her friend, dancer Ulla (Amber Heard, who is the new Mrs. Johnny Depp). When Ulla is late for a sitting, Gerda asks Einar (Oscar® winner Eddie Redmayne, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) to put Ulla’s dress over him and pose. He does, and something in him awakens. Pretty soon he’s graduating from borrowing his wife’s negligée to going out in public in full drag. Initially, Gerda is more than willing to indulge Einar in his fantasies. Einar-as-Lili becomes Gerda’s new subject for a series of portraits and her work starts getting noticed by the art world. Everyone wants to know who Gerda’s new muse is and Gerda says that Lili is Einar’s cousin. (Of course, no one wonders why Lili and Einar are never seen together, or that Lili looks a lot like Einar in drag. The Clark Kent Effect is obviously at play here.) Gerda and Einar’s marriage seems to go on swimmingly, if not dysfunctionally, well, until Einar announces that he wants to live full-time as Lili.
THE DANISH GIRL is directed by Oscar® winner Tom Hooper (THE KING’S SPEECH; LES MISÉRABLES), who is no stranger to period dramas. While this is a well-made film, one can’t help but think that some important pieces are missing from this puzzle. When Lili shares her first kiss with the fictional Henrik (Ben Whishaw, SPECTRE; PADDINGTON), we’re left wondering if Henrik knew who he was kissing. I say he most definitely did. Yet, there was no exploration into the notion that Einar may have been attracted only to men. (In both the film and in real life, Einar and Gerda never had children, leading to the possibility that they never had a sexual relationship.)
Many LGBTQ groups have taken the filmmaker to task for casting a cisgendered person as a transgender. (I had to look the word up so you can too.) I’m all for having more diversity on the silver screen but this is getting ridiculous. Eddie Redmayne playing a transgender is not the same as Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S) or the predominantly Caucasian cast of EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. On the other hand, Redmayne’s range of feminine mannerisms as Lili was rather limited and stereotypical. I accept that Einar didn’t have a lot of experience as a woman but being demure and talking in a soft voice is no great acting stretch and it’s certainly not going to be good enough to win Redmayne an Oscar. Vikander, on the other hand, was excellent and her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress is well deserved. (My money, though, is on Jennifer Jason Leigh for THE HATEFUL EIGHT.)
Don’t get me wrong, THE DANISH GIRL is well worth seeing. My disappointment with it, though, comes from my belief that the full story would have made for a more interesting film.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 30:30.)
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