21 December 2015 | dave-mcclain
"The Danish Girl" is a very touching, but controversial and oversimplified story.
"He's comfortable in his own skin," is usually seen as a compliment. It means that the person in question knows who he (or she) is and is content with that sense of identity. I dare speculate that it's a condition to which we all aspire. Unfortunately, many people around the world lack that inner peace because of a question of gender identity. Regardless of what others think about such an existential situation, people who feel uncomfortable with the biology with which they were born often suffer greatly over this conflict within their hearts and minds. They cannot be comfortable in their own skin, because they don't feel that their skin is really theirs. Before the somewhat more enlightened times of the 21st century, people who identified with a gender other than that to which biology assigned them suffered even more than some do today. In ages past, those people had little opportunity to make changes that would make themselves look on the outside as they felt on the inside. "The Danish Girl" (R, 2:00) is one such story.
Inspired by the true story of early 20th century married Danish painters Einar and Gerda Wegener, like David Ebershoff's 2000 book on which it's based, "The Danish Girl" is a fictionalized account of Einar's physical transition to Lili Elbe. Neither the book nor Lucinda Coxon's screenplay makes any claim to absolute historical accuracy. This story changes many of the facts for dramatic purposes. The real-life situation of Lili and Gerda's life was much more complicated than we see on screen. The result is a film that tells a simple story in a way that elicits empathy for the protagonists and enlightens the audience.
Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne plays Einar/Lili, and Alicia Vikander, his wife, Gerda. The couple lives in a large apartment in Copenhagen, Denmark, where they both make a living painting. At first, Einar's landscapes are more in demand and more respected than Gerda's portraits. One day when Gerda was in a hurry to finish a portrait of their mutual friend and ballerina, Oola (Amber Heard), Gerda asks Einar to stand in as a model by putting on Oola's stockings and heels and holding up Oola's dress in front of him. Although the scene is played with a combination of humor and awkwardness, it's obvious that Einar likes the clothes. He starts trying on his wife's clothes which gives birth to an idea. Gerda is a bit conflicted, but being the open-minded person she is, she suggests that her husband dress up as a woman to attend an art world function that he had been trying to avoid. And just like that, Lili is born.
The thing is that Einar had always felt like a female and being Lili was the first opportunity that he had really had to express what he felt was his true gender. Einar wears women's clothes and make-up more and more often, both at home and out in public. Lili even begins secretly seeing a local man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw). Gerda is understandably upset by all this, but she never criticizes her husband's inner turmoil or its outward manifestations. She wants to understand, and the more she does, the more she mourns her marriage, which she sees as slipping away. However, as all this is happening, her art career begins to take off. She paints Lili more and more, in fashionable clothes and in little or no clothes. As Gerda's style develops, increasing demand for her paintings soon leads the couple to move to Paris.
In Paris, Lili blossoms as a person, even as she seeks a more permanent solution to her feeling that her biology doesn't match her identity. She sees doctors whose diagnoses are wide-ranging, but are mainly focused on Einar/Lili having some sort of mental deficiency. Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenarts), a childhood friend of Einar, tries to help, but he can do little more than offer moral support to the couple. Finally, Lili and Gerda find a possible solution in the person of German doctor Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch). Dr. Warnekros offers to perform practically unprecedented sex reassignment surgery on Lili.
"The Danish Girl" is a very sensitive portrayal of a very tumultuous experience in the lives of two real people. Whether you sympathize with the situation of the two main characters or not, you're likely to empathize with them as people. While presenting a story about the controversial topic of gender identity, Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper also tells a very human story within the framework of the movie's plot. At its core, this is a tale of love and loss, of tolerance and devotion, of
feeling comfortable in one's own skin. Although some Movie Fans may find some of the situations, images and the brief but graphic nudity (both female and male) to be disturbing, and the plot does drag at times, one of the main reasons to see this movie is for the award-worthy performances by the two leads. With impressive emotional range and depth, both Redmayne and Vikander make this story surprisingly rich and relatable. Hooper draws even more focus (literally) to the characters' feelings by choosing especially significant moments to bring his camera in very close for a tight focus on the characters' faces, while allowing everything beyond their necks to go out of focus. "The Danish Girl" deserves credit for its honesty, its emotional power and its succinct presentation of a very complicated story. However, some of the changes in the story seem designed to increase the impact of the story, a move I would call emotionally manipulative. For that and other reasons, I just wish that this otherwise excellent film had been more historically accurate. "B"