Perhaps the “The Swedish Girl” might be a better moniker for this true-life drama from Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserable) given the mesmerising performance by Alicia Vikander as the wife of transgender artist Einar Wagener. Already being hailed by some as the best Swedish actress since Ingrid Bergman, Vikander has enjoyed a stellar couple of years, featuring in films as diverse as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Testament of Youth and Burnt, however it is her incredible turn in Ex-Machina that really brought her to notice as an actress of considerable talent. Gerda Wegener is a feisty yet compassionate character and Vikander delivers a performance of touching conviction. Of course, that is not to dismiss the work of Eddie Redmayne in another transformative performance hot on the heels of his Academy Award-winning take on Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Here again he takes on the challenge of tackling a real-life character whose undergoes significant becomes increasingly uncomfortable in his own skin and ultimately decides to pursue gender realignment surgery, a series of procedures with significant inherent risks. With support from Gerda, who demonstrates a level of compassion and devotion that is unwavering, Einar sets forth on a path of transformation to emerge as Lili Elber.
When we first meet Einar and Gerda, they are living a happy life in Copenhagen in 1926. Einar’s stark landscape paintings are generating considerable acclaim, while Gerda is struggling for recognition as a portraitist. Despite the contrasting states of their careers, they are a happy, loving and lusty couple. When their dancer friend Ulla (Amber Heard) is late for a sitting, Gerda persuades Einar to don stockings and ballet shoes as a substitute model, a moment that would reignite long-repressed feelings of gender dysphoria. At first, Gerda encourages Einar to ‘dress-up’ as Lili and accompany her to lavish social events, the type of soirees that Einar might ordinarily avoid. When it becomes apparent Lili isn’t just a character, but rather an expression of Einar’s truest self, Gerda has to come to terms with the fact that everything she has known is collapsing around her. Whilst Lili is faced with the type of resistance and ignorance we might expect at that time (or even today for that matter) – considered a freak by doctors and beaten up by homophobic thugs – Hooper does play it safe for the most part, perhaps believing a gently-gently approach might be the best way win over the mainstream audiences who would find the likes of, say, Tangerine a bit too much to handle. When Lili, who is the first known person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, is told that the operations have a high risk of failure, she will not be swayed in her determination to align her physical form with her inner identity.
Although Einar/Lili is the one who undergoes the physical transformation, it is Gerda who also has to endure incredible upheaval in an ever-changing situation, all the while desperate to secure recognition as an artist. It is perhaps ironic then that it is her portraits of Lili that prove the catalyst for her success. The costume and production design are fetching and the cinematography by Danny Cohen revels in Redmayne’s androgyny, tracking his transformation from Einar to Lili with nary a whiff of anything too provocative, while the screenplay by Lucinda Coxon (based on the book of the same name by David Ebershoff) mostly avoids excessive dramatic conflict by focusing on Lili’s circle of supporters, such as her childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a potential love interest in Henrik (Ben Whishaw) and the stoic Gerda.
As he did tracing the progress Hawkings’ illness in The Theory if Everything, Redmayne’s physical manifestations – the angle of his neck, his walk, and the timbre of his voice – are impressive, but his performance doesn’t take us inside his mind to any great extent, which is perhaps a problem with the script more than anything. So nice in Far from the Madding Crowd, Schoenaerts is a gracious, gentle presence again here as Hans, while Sebastian Koch is well cast as Warnekros, the only doctor with any interest in helping Lili. It is Vikander though who shines brightest and it is very puzzling that her Academy Award nomination is in the Supporting Actress category. Despite being a tad conventional, The Danish Girl is a worthy, well-made, touching and timely examination of a brave real-life figure.