Just a few minutes into “The Danish Girl,” after coaxing her husband, Einar (Eddie Redmayne), into donning stockings and heels to pose for a painting and then noticing his longing gaze at the female garments, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) asks innocently, “Is there something you’d like to tell me? I’m your wife, I know everything.”
Somehow, I don’t think she anticipated the experience would send the devoted couple on a path that would ultimately result into his transition to Lili Elbe.
In fact, in Tom Hooper’s beautifully filmed account of the relationship, adapted from David Ebershoff’s fictionalized 2000 novel, it was Gerda who encouraged his early crossdressing, especially as her paintings of “Lili” began attracting attention among art dealers and collectors.
Perhaps a more prophetic exchange occurs later, when Gerda and Lili attend a glitzy party attended by Copenhagen’s liberal art set.
Lili: “Don’t leave me.”
Gerda: “I would never.”
And, she doesn’t, even as Einar struggles to identify the cause of his gender dysphoria, alternately visiting psychiatrists and acting out on his feelings, before finding a German doctor who is willing to attempt the unthinkable in 1926: gender reassignment surgery.
Theirs is truly a unique relationship. I doubt Chris Jenner was nearly as understanding when Caitlyn came out, even though she must have been aware of her own husband’s crossdressing as tabloid stories continued to stir rumors. But, given Caitlyn’s public profile, comparisons are almost unavoidable despite the advances society has made in 90 years.
Both actors are surely favorites for Oscars in their categories, with Redmayne looking to repeat his 2015 win for “The Theory of Everything.” His emotional transition from Einar to Lili is so expertly portrayed that it’s almost impossible to dissect the actor from his character.
While Redmayne can rely on wigs and exquisite costumes by Paco Delgado to assist in his illusion, Vikander can’t and doesn’t. One of the strongest moments in the film comes when she walks in on Lili during her first awkward kiss from a man, homosexual artist Henrik (Ben Whishaw). The pain is evident in her expression, but there are more shocks to come. The experience turns out to be seminal for Lili also, as she realizes she is not gay.
It’s not clear how the transgender community will respond to the movie. Elbe was a pioneer and her diary, first published in 1933 as “Man Into Woman,” is an important chronicle of her journey. Hooper approaches the story with a superficial sensitivity, but it’s hard to believe Elbe was accepted as easily as portrayed in the movie, despite a token scene in which Lili is accosted by a couple of thugs in a park. We’re still talking the 1920s and sexual minorities were treated as deviants and criminals in every country.
It’s reassuring to discover in “The Danish Girl” that Elbe finally found peace and would not be alone in her final moment of authenticity. If only every transgender person could be so fortunate.
“The Danish Girl” opens in South Florida theaters on Dec. 25. Check local listings for theaters and show times.