LGBT Perspectives TV & Film Critic
SAN FRANCISCO — The Danish Girl is the love story of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, focusing on the evolving relationship between the two. Both are prominent artists of the interwar period in Europe. The film is set in Copenhagen, Paris and finally Dresden. It opens in the studio space shared by Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) in Copenhagen. They met at the Danish Royal Art Academy where both studied painting. Each had a different focus, Einar’s was landscapes, Gerda’s was portraiture. From the beginning we see that this couple is deeply in love.
One day Gerda’s model, Ulla (Amber Heard), fails to show and Einar offers to fill in. She’s at the end of the piece and all she needs is a leg with shoe but Gerda insists that he put on the full costume. You can see the excitement in his eyes as he feels the soft, silky fabric against his skin. Ulla arrives and bursts into laughter at the sight of Einar. She christens him “Lily.”
Later that night when they make love, Einar asks Gerda to leave her slip on. He wants to feel it against his skin again. The days pass and Einar’s interest in women’s clothing grows. Gerda decides to help him with this new fascination and dresses him up and applies makeup. Einar passes.
An awards gala by the art community is thrown. These events are networking occasions and Einar hates them. Gerda needs to advance her work and plans on going with or without him. Einar agrees to go, but only as Lily. Gerda agrees and they make preparations. In addition to clothing, Gerda teaches Einar how to move like a woman as well as use feminine gestures.
They make their entrance and eyes turn to this newcomer. Gerda introduces Lily as Einar’s cousin and people remark about their resemblance. Something happens, though; Lily begins to emerge as a true person. She even attracts the admiration of men in the room. Flirting was not something she counted on. One of them pursues her and in a secluded room they kiss. Lily is shocked. These feelings are completely new to her. As Einar she had never been attracted to men. Now Lily has other ideas.
Einar has realized what was hidden in him all his life; he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. It seems at first he has a split personality. He spends time as Einar but more and more frequently as Lily.
Gerda is confused, but in Lily she has found a muse and the popularity of her art deco portraits grows. The couple moves to Paris and find greater tolerance and Lily’s transformation grows.
Eddie Redmayne as Lily/ Einar is superb. From the beginning there are subtle gestures and the ways he move hint at some underlying femininity. The presentation grows throughout the movie until Einar completely disappears. It’s completely believable that Lily is woman.
Alicia Vikander also turns in a wonderful performance — beautiful, sexy and completely committed to her husband. His initial awakening is spurred by her need for a model to complete a painting and this cross-dressing leads to Lily clandestinely becoming her most important model at that point in her career.
There is so much beauty in this film. The sets are wonderful from the sparse art studio to the luxury hotel suite they share in Paris. The outdoor shots in Copenhagen convey a sense of the time in which it set.
Part of Gerda’s work is in the fashion world. She does drawings of fine couture in such magazines as Vogue. Paco Delgado’s costumes are elegant and beautiful. I wondered why women stopped dressing in those styles. I really wanted Gerda’s hats and wardrobe. The only real criticism of the story is that events that took place over a much longer period of time were forced into 5 years. The real-life ambiguity of their real-life sexual orientations are also never addressed. This I can accept as due to the time constraints afforded a feature film. Someday a miniseries perhaps?
Director Tom Hooper does a marvellous job of bringing to life Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay adaptation of David Ebershoff’s novel.
I very much enjoyed this movie and I think you will, too. Go see it with a friend. You’ll have something to talk about over coffee or a drink after the show.