Cinematic Releases: The Danish Girl

Dana reviews The Danish Girl starring dramatic powerhouse, Eddie Redmayne. 

Jupiter Ascending. How could I?
Complex and heartbreaking, The Danish Girl tells the story of Lili Elbe, who was born Einar Wegener – a painter who was among the very first sex reassignment surgery recipients. Based on the David Ebershoff novel of the same name, Tom Hooper’s thoughtful dramatic interpretation of her biography is a beautiful homage to both the man and the woman that Elbe was, focusing on the relationship between Einar Wegener and his wife Gerda, who was a brilliant artist in her own right, and the changing dynamics between them as he realizes that Lili is truly who he is – and that he must “fix nature’s mistake” in order to truly become in full the woman he knows he is on the inside, during a time when transgender identity was treated as a perversion or a disease.

In fact, it is as Gerda’s model that Lili begins to come into being as an individual, and she is at first possessive of the idea of Lili as a person – she is, after all, in love with Einar. But as Lili begins to take shape as a woman, as a person driven of her own dreams and desires, Gerda must come to understand her own feelings for the person who has always lived lying dormant within the man she married, and come to terms with how her existence separate from him will change the way they live and work together.

Visually, the film is positively breathtaking. Wide-shot frames are constructed like watercolor paintings, breathing with color and the resplendent natural movements of a world which does not define itself in human compartmentalization. From the first frames, we are treated to a world of shape and form, which does not completely focus on the human beings even when they are at the center of the narrative. Hooper creates a world around what these characters have to say, rather than within it – dialog takes a back seat to the carefully off-center shots and dislodged pans as it follows the breakdowns and reimagining of the psyches of its two protagonists.  Both Einar and Gerda Wegener are, essentially, becoming new people during the process of this film and they must as such redefine their love for one another; they can no longer live as husband and wife as Einar sheds his biological disguise and Gerda must try to let her husband, as a person, go in order to let Lili Elbe emerge and live her own life.

It is consummately devastating to watch both of these characters’ struggle with the transformation Einar Wegener undergoes in order to completely become Lili Elbe. Their love for one another is obvious – each wants the other to have what they need in order to be happy, but the diverging paths which become evident when Lili begins to surface more prominently in Einar’s daily life reveal that they may simply be unable to provide for one another emotionally the way they both desire. It is painful to watch them fight with themselves as they try to allow for each other’s freedom and accept Lili as the woman who has always lived within Einar’s body.

Hmmmm. A portrait of Balem Abrasax?
These textures will be soooooo boring
and melodramatic.

If anything is amiss in this film, it is only the slightly obvious symbolism which coats several key scenes; Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, as Lili and Gerda respectively, are so resplendently aware of their characters’ inner hearts and desires that their performances do not need to be supplemented with clich├ęs and heavy-handed leitmotifs. A single facial expression from Redmayne, a vocal tic from Vikander, are all it takes to feel the same pain, confusion, longing, and love these characters feel. The cinematography, too – coupled with an elegantly modest score from Alexandre Desplat – speaks volumes where dialog only seems to support what the visuals have already made perfectly clear.

Lili Elbe was a quiet pioneer, a woman who spent much of her life in a physically male body who had to make the choice to eschew all that was expected of her in order to truly embrace what she always knew her Creator had made her in the first place. The Danish Girl illustrates that love understands only the language of the soul – and that regardless of the skin and social conventions attached to it, a human soul which is loved completely, is loved wrapped in a scarf of any color.


-Dana Culling