|Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe, 1921|
Actors soar in tender, fact-based transgender story The Danish Girl
What must it be like to feel that the body you were born into is the wrong gender? This cataclysmic emotional shift in identity is such a private matter, it seems near impossible to capture onscreen.
But Tom Hooper makes a valiant effort in The Danish Girl, the fact-based story of Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener, one of the first people known to have undergone sexual reassignment surgery in the 1920s, transitioning into a woman named Lili Elbe.
Although the spotlight is on Einar/Lili, the larger story Hooper tells is the evolving relationship between the painter and his wife, Gerda.
It is Gerda's journey, watching the husband she adores turn into someone else, and the choices she must face to accept and support him, that makes their story so engrossing.
|Vikander and Redmayne as Gerda and Einar: Oscar-bait|
But as a work of fiction, this tale of sexual confusion and transition is told with compassion and clarity.
|That magic moment: Einar poses for Gerda|
|Redmayne as Lili|
Rushing to finish a commissioned portrait one day, when her model is delayed, Gerda begs Einar to pose in a pair of silk stockings and satin slippers so she can paint his feet. The effect on Einar is immediate and electrifying, as an aspect of his personality he's been trying to suppress his whole life begins to assert itself.
It's no surprise that Redmayne tackles his role with persuasive delicacy. But Vikander (having a great year, after Ex Machina and Testament of Youth) is the real Oscar-bait for her tough, funny, sensitive Gerda. (Read more)
Hooper's film might have been even gutsier had he stuck closer to the truth of the Wegeners' lives. For one thing, the couple had already moved to Paris in 1912 to immerse themselves in the Bohemian art scene and escape the more conventional morality of Copenhagen society.
|The real Lili, ca 1930: all girl|
Gerda was the more successful artist, a magazine illustrator who became notorious for her decadent drawings and erotic female watercolors. Some biographies suggest that she an Lili lived openly as a lesbian couple in Paris. Lili certainly remained one of Gerda's favorite models.
(That's Gerda's portrait of the two of them at the top of this post.)
Gerda married another man (at Lili's insistence, according to some sources), when her marriage to Einar was legally annulled by King Christian X of Denmark after Einar's first surgery became public knowledge. By then, Lili had a male suitor she also hoped to marry.
Obviously, the shifting psychological currents between them must have been even more complex than in the film.
Sexual identity is a tricky and very personal subject. Hooper tells a simplified version of the story, but that he grapples with it at all, with so much reason and empathy, is satisfying indeed.
|The real Gerda and Einar with one of Gerda's paintings|