The Danish Girl is a Beautiful, Important Film
Before I dive into reviewing this movie, I want to acknowledge that many people were and are upset about Eddie Redmayne being cast as the lead instead of a transgender person. I understand and respect why it’s upsetting, and I want to make it clear that I fully support transgender people playing transgender movie roles and I sincerely wish it happened more often.
I saw The Danish Girl a couple of months ago and decided to review it because I loved it, so I just rented it a second time and because I’d seen it before and knew everything that happens in it, I spent the whole time like:
Before seeing it, I had never heard the name Lili Elbe, much less know she was a real person. For me, that makes the film a thousand times more important and emotional and moving – as is the case with a lot of art based on real people. I cried one thousand times. I know it’s not possible to cry that many individual times during one movie, but I did it. I did.
Lili Elbe was born Einar Wegener and was a Danish landscape painter. In the beginning of the movie, Einar and his wife Gerda (a portrait artist, played by Alicia Vikander) are living in a cute little place painting their cute little hearts out. Einar is a very well-regarded artist and a big draw at parties. Gerda hasn’t had her big break yet and struggles a bit living in Einar’s shadow. (There’s a tough scene where she takes some of her work to a gallery hoping to get a show and the curator says, “I agree with Einar – you could be a first-class painter if you found the right subject matter.”) But they clearly love each other very much and the marriage seems good. Things get interesting when Einar stands in for the (female) subject of a portrait Gerda is painting and is asked to put on silk stockings and ladies’ shoes and hold a dress up against him. This is where the best acting of the movie begins – the subtle changes in Eddie Redmayne’s expression and breathing as he touches the beautiful silk of the stockings and the dress and feels something stirring within himself.
A friend walks in on them, hands him her bouquet of flowers, and laughingly says, “We’re going to call you Lili.”
Things take off from there – together, Gerda and Einar begin creating Lili. It’s sort of a game at first, and Gerda is both amused and a bit turned on, and she finds sudden and intense inspiration in sketching Lili and her career takes off. But soon it becomes apparent that for Einar, this isn’t just playing around. He’s comfortable as Lili and spends more and more time as her, until finally there is no more Einar.
The incredible acting in this film is all about subtlety. I wish this hadn’t been Leo’s year to win the Best Actor Oscar, because Eddie Redmayne is so heartbreakingly good in this movie, I can’t handle it. His movement as he studies and begins to practice the way women gesture and walk, his perfect feminine bashfulness and insecurity when he appears in public as Lili for the first time and gets attention for being so pretty. There’s an amazing scene where he goes to a peep show (as Einar) not to leer at the woman performing, but to watch the way she moves and practice himself, and their eyes meet through the glass and it’s like they’re almost dancing together. I cried.
What I like best about The Danish Girl was the love story between Gerda and Lili. Gerda is asked to make a lot of emotional sacrifices during the transition from Einar to Lili, but she does it willingly because there’s such incredible, unwavering love there. She understands that the transition is necessary because Lili is who Einar really is. So she is unflinchingly supportive as Lili finds a doctor who is a pioneer in genital reconstruction surgery. “This is not my body, Professor,” Lili says. “Please take it away.”
I won’t blow the rest of the story for you guys, but this film is so good and so important, and Lili describes being transgender in a way I’ve never heard before but think is brilliant: “God made me a woman. The doctor is curing me of the sickness that was my disguise.”
The Danish Girl is not a perfect movie, but it’s a beautiful one – the story, the acting, the cinematography, the costuming, all of it. Don’t miss it.