He watches her as she undresses, his gaze intense, scrutinising. Her nightdress is silk, with black lace trimming. “It’s pretty,” he tells her. “Well, I might let you borrow it,” she quips. “I might like that,” he smiles. “Is there something you’re not telling me?” she says with a smile of her own. “Is there something you’d like to know?” “No. I’m your wife. I know everything.” This scene, this piece of dialogue speaks to the heart of the acclaimed film, The Danish Girl.
Set in Copenhagen in 1929, the film tells the story of a young married couple, Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). Both are artists, but only Einar’s work, a series of interpretations of the same landscape, sells and elicits critical acclaim. Gerda’s attempts to sell her own work fail repeatedly. One gallery owner tells her, “You could be a first class painter if you find the right subject matter.” Amid this, the couple tries to conceive a first child.
When Gerda asks her husband to pose for her in stockings and slippers so she can complete the painting of her dancer friend, Ulla (Amber Heard), something stirs in Einar. He hesitantly strokes the silk stockings, trembling, staring at it with wonder. As a joke, Gerda suggests Einar attends a ball, dressed as a woman, pretending to be his female cousin. They find a wig for Einar, clothes, and Gerda teaches him how to do his make up, to walk, sit, and gesture like a woman would. And so, Lili Elbe, Einar’s ‘cousin’ is born. When Gerda lovingly paints Lili’s portrait, her art is finally taken seriously. Her works are haunting, mysterious.
At the dance, the shy Lili meets Hendrik (Ben Whishaw), who kisses her in an empty room. A shocked Gerda spots the two. Both Einar and Gerda are thrown off balance by the incident. Yet, Gerda continues to paint Lili, not fully understanding that Einar’s transformation is more than a game. What follows is a complex and dark journey for both. There is a scene in which Einar stands in front of a full-length mirror, examining his male body, tucking his away his penis to look like a female. The pain on his face is a punch to the gut.
It’s the 1920s though; gender identity cannot be questioned. Homosexuality, transgender, intersex: these identities were seen as physical or mental illnesses that could be ‘cured’ through radiation, therapy, brain surgery, or hospitalisation at institutions for mental illness. At Gerda’s request, Einar/Lili tries radiation, which (obviously) doesn’t work.
This film is difficult and uncomfortable, to say the least. It’s not only about the agony of a transgender person to accept who they are, but also the pain of those who love them, particularly romantic partners, who have to let them go. Gerda has to accept that she will lose her husband, an excruciating and bitter pill to swallow. Einar’s true self was suppressed and yet there were hints of it. Gerda explains how she was the one who courted Einar. “It was the strangest thing. It was like kissing myself,” she explains to friends, shortly before Einar admits the truth. But painful as the film is, it’s also transformative.
The Danish Girl is a heartrending, complicated, and beautiful work, both visually and as a story. The cinematography is masterful, creating a film that is painterly and mirrors art. Houses reflecting on a canal, clouds streaking across a pale dawn – these are the brushstrokes of Impressionist paintings. Tom Hooper, who won an Academy Award in 2010 for directing The King’s Speech, tells this extraordinary and brave story (which is based on the 1933 memoir called “Man into Woman”, the true story of the Wegeners and Lili Elbe) with sensitivity, sensuality, and sophistication.
The acting is superb. Redmayne won an Oscar last year for playing the painful physical transformation of phycisist Steven Hawking, and in The Danish Girl, his role is also about transfiguration, earning him another nomination this year. It’s astonishing to watch his metamorphosis. At first, one only sees Lili as Einar, a man dressed as a woman. As the film progresses, one only sees Lili. At the same time, Alicia Vikander is considered one of the frontrunners for the best supporting actress award. Her performance too tells the story of painful transformation, but also, of unconditional love.
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 29 January 2016