“The Danish Girl” tells two stories: the story of Lili Elbe, the pioneer of transgender movement, and the love story between Einar/Lili and Gerda. Elegant and emotional, the film is unforgettable for its aesthetic quality, the messages it gives, and the astounding performances of the two protagonists
“The bog is in me.” The painter Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is famous for his dark and tormented landscapes. His wife Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) is a painter too. She depicts portraits and she doesn’t manage to find her way to success. From this preamble, the story of a transition starts being told. One day, Gerda asks her husband to pose for her, in the place of the ballerina Ulla who cannot come. Einar is really embarrassed but accepts the challenge as a joke, and decides to be called Lili for fun. However, when he puts the tulle dress on, something happens: Einar’s true nature, which has been locked within “the bog” for too long, manifests itself. And while Einar realizes that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body, Gerda’s career finds an unexpected breakthrough thanks to the portraits of this mysterious woman called Lili. Einar can no longer keep Lili locked within himself. “Every morning I promise myself that I’ll spend the entire day as a man. But I think Lili’s thoughts, I dream her dreams. She’s always there.” Einar wants to make way for Lili, whom he perceives as a separate entity. Helped and supported by Gerda, to whom he is less and less attracted, Einar runs away from the medicine of his time wanting to intern him as schizophrenic. He thus takes refuge within the experimental surgery, being conscious that what he intends to try is an operation that has never been attempted before.
Born as Einar Wegener, Lili Elbe is the first transsexual who attempted sex reassignment surgery. Lili’s incredible story represents, therefore, the first case of transgender surgery recorded in medical history. We are in 1920, a period in which issues concerning gender identity were seen exclusively as diseases or, even worse, proper cases of schizophrenia. Unfortunately, it’s puzzling to realize how difficult is still nowadays for Italy to talk about, understand, and deal with transsexuality. For this reason, “The Danish Girl” offers, finally, an important starting point for the inclusion of transgender people in Italian society, by giving them voice and visibility. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Lili decided to live freely, openly, and authentically: in other words, she decided to be herself. Lili’s story is a vital hymn to courage and freedom. Her great accomplishment makes her the pioneer of transgender movement and still an inspirational figure for transgender people all around the world.
“The Danish Girl” is the debut novel by David Ebershoff and it is based on Lili’s real diaries. Published in 2000, the book won the Lambda Literary Award in the category “Transgender Fiction” and it was translated into almost twenty languages. The Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) bases his new film on this book. The story brought to the big screen is, of course, slightly different from the real one. It is more simplified and short, due to the obvious needs that cinema has. In fact, in two hours, it’s impossible to cover all the issues related to Einar’s choice – such as, five operations including the transplant of the uterus and the ovaries, the invalidation of marriage, the first legal sex change (Einar indeed, after the removal of the penis and the testicles, gets the passport as Lili, with the recognition of transgender status), the will to get married with a man and the desire of having children. Therefore, Tom Hooper takes poetic licenses by deciding to reinterpret the story and domesticate it to his cinema of grace and formal elegance. For the story of a body that transforms itself, Hooper chooses the disembodiment: Einar’s slow consciousness raising of becoming Lili passes through the mirror of soul, namely through the protagonist’s eyes and face, and not through his body. The director decides wisely not to dwell on the harshest components of sex reassignment surgery, and chooses to touch Einar’s agony delicately. In other words, Hooper decides to reveal Lili’s inner soul, without giving much room to the physical aspects connected to transsexuality. With “The Danish Girl”, the director continues his investigation started with “The King’s Speech”: the exploration of a ‘jammed’ body. In “The King’s Speech” the obstacle affects the speech, since King George VI (Colin Firth) is seriously stutterer. In “The Danish Girl” the obstacle concerns Einar’s whole body, which becomes the container of a soul rejecting it. Packaged in about two hours of emotions, “The Danish Girl” is an important film of great courage, made with great care but above all with the clear will to tackle the personal dramas of being transgender: the inability to identify with the body you were born in and the need for a transformation in a world full of prejudices.
Visually, the film is a gem. Tom Hooper’s directing style is always noteworthy. He uses the camera as if it were a brush. The rapid changes of focus within the same shot and the frequent changes of perspective have two effects: sometimes they overwhelm the protagonists in a world oppressing them, sometimes they make them more distant from each other, as if they were isolated. Maybe his style can seem too smug, but it’s a clever, artistic style from an objective point of view. Hooper’s ‘classic’ style doesn’t result in a glossy academicism, and the frequent close-ups capture every detail of the protagonists’ expressions.
The photography is excellent and it is clearly inspired by Einar’s painted landscapes. Furthermore, Alexander Desplat’s magnificent score goes hand to hand with images. The film creates figurative paintings of great impact; it plays with a rich color palette made of both cold colors and warm colors. Hooper paints environments with a specific palette of colors: blue, cyan, tile and orange. As a result, “The Danish Girl” turns out to be a stunning portrait in motion. The richness of the costumes and the refinement of photography go along with the beautiful backdrops, wonderful interiors, and impeccable chromatic compositions. Therefore, sets, costumes and cinematography work perfectly in harmony as just one portfolio, giving viewers a special and unique visual feast.
However, beyond the film’s aesthetic value, “The Danish Girl” wouldn’t be the same if it were not for the moving portrayal of its protagonists. The two protagonists dominate the screen and enchant the viewer, showing an unprecedented chemistry. Einar and Lili are played by the British actor Eddie Redmayne, who won the Academy Award as best actor in 2014 for his stunning performance as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”. After Hawking, Eddie Redmayne even exceeds his previous Oscar role and outdoes his best, immersing himself in the dual role of Einar and Lili with a sense of identification leaving you breathless. It is not only a matter of Eddie’s delicate features and ephebic face: his miraculous performance is perceivable in every look, gesture, flutter of eyelashes, and wrinkle. Eddie is the most prodigious, expressionist actor of his generation and he owns a phenomenal expressive range. Not by chance, he was nominated as Best Actor for this great role of pure mimesis and mutation. The British actor is a chameleon. It has an incredible ability to disappear and become another person: he doesn’t play his characters, he lives them. Speaking of this role, Eddie puts himself not only in Lili’s body, but mostly in Lili’s soul. He shows an extraordinary control of posture, gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions. As a result, his performance is heart breaking and groundbreaking, as it’s made of endless, subtle nuances.
It’s true that you cannot look away from Eddie’s androgynous, ephebic beauty. Yet, his performance rests powerful, remarkable and unforgettable for the sensitivity and the delicacy that Redmayne puts in. In order to play the fascinating yet painful role of Lili Elbe, Eddie transforms himself again skillfully and optimizes his handsome, androgynous physicality. He proves himself to be a multifunctional and courageous actor. Endowed with tapered features, grace and pure beauty, Redmayne is able to take the form of Lili not only in the elegant posture, but also in the slow and imperceptible movements, which are capable of expressing finesse and lightness. The actor thus succeeds in embodying and representing the sensual, tragic, and sublime poetry of female universe. Alongside Eddie, the charming, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina, Ex Machina) doesn’t limit herself to play the typical role of the supporting wife: her Gerda is a lively, young woman with an irrepressible vitalism, whose joyful sensuality and femininity are embodied with self-confidence. She gets to gain the audience’s attention even more than his male counterpart. She determines the fate of each scene and in the end she is the real emotional engine of the film. Alicia’s portrayal of a strong-willed, emancipated artist who is simoultaneously Einar’s soul and Lili’s shoulder is simply impeccable. Indeed, she won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.
Set in Copenhagen in the late ‘20s and the early ‘30s, “The Danish Girl” tells two stories. The first story is a story of transformation. The second story is a love story. Yet, the two stories are the same story, and the film is perfectly able to hold them together. Indeed, the process of Einar’s transformation is made possible, above all, thanks to Gerda’s unconditional love. In fact, Einar tells Gerda: “I love you. You’re the only person who made sense of me, who made me possible.” “The Danish Girl” is mostly the portrait of two individuals tight by a bond that transcends social conventions and gender stereotypes to assert its extraordinary uniqueness. Tom Hooper’s film is not only a film about transsexuality, but also a love story of great, emotional strength, in which two equally powerful dramas develop: the drama of the man who risks his life to be himself, and the drama of the woman who decides to help the man she loves by giving up to her dream of living with him. “The Danish Girl” is the story of a brave change and transformation, but above all, is a touching love story between two people complementing each other. Lili and Gerda will continue to belong to each other in spite of everything, indeed.
Interestingly enough, we are in front of a film that confuses us about the actual protagonist: who is “The Danish Girl”, really? Probably it’s Gerda, not Einar. We can understand that when we realize who is losing more between the two characters. Gerda loses her husband, while Einar accomplishes a rebirth. Eventually, Lili is free while Gerda is the prisoner of her own suffering. Gerda Wegener’s role shifts from Einar’s wife and lover to Lili’s friend and mother. It’s only through Gerda’s eyes that we can follow, live, understand and accept Einar’s change. Gerda is the only person who has always allowed Einar to be himself. Gerda is thus the extraordinary woman who, due to her generosity and boundless love, remains next to Einar within the long and painful path on her true self. On the one hand, Einar starts leaving more and more room for Lili, perceived as the true self; on the other hand, Gerda witnesses her husband’s transformation with conflicting feelings. This is the reason why “The Danish Girl” is not only the story of a physical change, but also and mostly a love story. What brings Gerda to support Lili at every stage of the surgery is pure love, which is unconditional and goes beyond sexual intercourse. Therefore, Gerda embodies the deepest aspect of love: sacrifice. Within her soul, we find the tragic conflict of love, which deals with the following questions: how do you have to deal with the person you love? Do you have to help him/her in his/her own path even if this involves a painful departure, or do you have to hold him/her tight and make him/her suffer tremendously? Is love taking or giving? Gerda knows the answers and the way she answers represents an incredible life witness.
“The Danish Girl” received many international awards including the Queer Lion at Venice International Film Festival in 2015. Moreover, Alicia Vikander won the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. Speaking of Academy Awards, the film was nominated for four Oscars: Best Actor (Eddie Redmayne), Best Supporting Actress (Alicia Vikander), Best Scenography (Ewe Stewart) and Best Costumes (Paco Delgado). In conclusion, with “The Danish Girl” Tom Hooper brings to the big screen a story of great, emotional intensity. Directed with elegance and balance, and supported by the two protagonists’ astounding performances, “The Danish Girl” is with no doubt one of the best movies of the year.