4 / 5
When The Danish Girl trailer was released back in September, the internet was saturated with a two minute tease of Tom Hooper’s hotly-anticipated drama. For several weeks, I associated an Adblock-free YouTube with the flawless faces of Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, smiling then weeping, swept into a delicately shabby-chic world accompanied by soaring strings (though soul-destroyingly, not Alexandre Desplat’s original score). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch the trailer over fifty times, often on loop, obnoxiously crying with excitement. But not everyone was so enamoured, with a mild backlash brewing over the casting of a cisgender man in the role of one of the most influential transgender people of the last century. But for all the mixed emotions surrounding Hooper’s film, personal and international, the overall outcome is a stunning mix of equally compelling emotions.
Based on the captivating book by David Ebershoff, which in turn was inspired by Lili Elbe’s personal diaries, the film recounts the story of Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), successful and unsuccessful painters living in the pastel-capped city of Copenhagen. Einar paints landscapes, to high regard, of his childhood home by the fjords, but Gerda struggles to garner critical interest for her portraits. The notion that Gerda has simply not found the right subject yet does bring up the question of gender privilege early on in their story – an unspoken question that Gerda is clearly keen to disregard from the offset. She was the one that propositioned Einar when they first met. And she was sure they would be together.
When Gerda’s friend and model is not present for a sitting, the flamboyant and constantly red-lipped Oola (Amber Heard), Einar steps in, too besotted with his wife to say no. Donning nude stockings, too-small heels and pressing a layered dress to his waist, the humour swiftly ceases and Einar is no longer Einar. The moment swallows him up – his breathing heightens, his pupils expand, and fear-blotched revelation colours his face. That is until Oola appears, kissing a bright red pout onto his cheeks and, handing him a bouquet of flowers, christens this new character – this new person – Lili.
Weeks and months pass and Lili becomes more and more present. Taken as Einar’s ‘cousin from home’, Lili begins to venture outside: to formal parties and the brooding eyes of Ben Whishaw’s Henrik; to the obliviously bustling streets of their beloved city; to the intervention of doctors, some understanding, some merciless, but one with the vision to grant Lili her one, all-consuming wish.
Vikander’s theatrical performance contrasts with Redmayne’s more understated delivery at the start of the film – a choice somewhat distracting at first but one that becomes increasingly clear. It is as much about Gerda as it is about Lili. Gerda is the one that unlocks the dormant Lili within Einar’s false façade, and Gerda is the one that supports her husband through a situation so unthinkably unique in 1920s Denmark. It’s their two-handed bravery more than anything that keeps the couple sane and breathing. Lili is a woman of two personas, one wrong and one right, but really she is a woman of three. Gerda and Lili and Einar – the triplet of puzzle pieces in a strange mismatched jigsaw of unfinished humans.
The vast settings are much as Ebershoff’s book describes: wide walls and high ceilings complimenting Lili and Gerda’s artistic lifestyle. The painterly cinematography and appearances are just like Einar’s paintings too: muted landscapes, idyllic and calming. But just as these things on the outside can look flawlessly beautiful, when you inevitably venture further into the scene, into the room, closer to Einar’s changing face, the wind bites, the fjords crash, and the unruly textures reveal themselves. Hooper’s film may look idealised and aesthetically perfect but really, when you think about it, we know this isn’t true of their emotions. And somehow, those details make the story all the more upsetting. Gerda and Einar and Lili may look handsome and beautiful poised in their grand apartment in their charming European nirvana, but underneath they’re suffering, profusely and indefinitely, in a world with few answers to their novel questions.
Of course it is harrowing, but a rewardingly uplifting harrow. Lili and Gerda and those who pass through their intertwined story manage to find moments of humour in the unforgiving situation – fleeting moments, yes, but worth their short number of seconds. One hauntingly tender moment lingers, when Einar watches a dancing woman’s feminine dynamism through the shelter of a viewing window. Like the other men present, he is a mere observer craving for more, but their instinctual needs are quite obviously different. In that absorbing moment, he can practice Lili, practice the subtleties of her movements, her hands and her arms and her neck, and believe she will exist – a woman born so full of possibilities and pure, unmitigated life.