An impressive cast and crew of Academy Award winners have teamed to bring a little-known chapter of LGBTQ history to the big screen this month. The Danish Girl, scheduled to open this Friday, relates the challenging personal journey undertaken by acclaimed painter Einar Wegener in the 1920’s to transition from male to female. Wegener adopted the name Lili Elbe and hers became one of the first documented cases of gender reassignment or confirmation surgery.
Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar last year for his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, stars as Wegener. He will surely be nominated again for his excellent, beautifully nuanced and authentic performance here. If he should win, Redmayne will become the first back-to-back Best Actor winner since Tom Hanks over 20 years ago.
The Danish Girl is directed by Tom Hooper, who won an Academy Award for directing The King’s Speech. Hooper followed that historical hit with the 2012 musical Les Miserables, in which Redmayne played the French revolutionary Marius.
“I was at the Les Miserables barricades and Tom said, ‘I would like you to read something,” Redmayne recalls. “Tom then got me the script (for The Danish Girl) and I sat down to read it, knowing nothing about it. I was profoundly moved, it blew my mind. I found it extraordinarily passionate and deeply felt.”
Lucinda Coxon’s revelatory screenplay was adapted from a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff. The book won the Lambda Literary Award and was immediately optioned for a movie, but it has taken 15 years and numerous false starts to finally bring it to fruition. Producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner — whose Working Title productions, including Billy Elliot, Dead Man Walking and Fargo, have been honored with 11 Oscars and even more nominations — saw The Danish Girl through to completion.
“When I read (the book), I realized that Lili’s remarkable story had been swept away by the tide of history,” Coxon said. “What I was particularly struck by was that this was the story of a marriage, a love between two artists of courage and imagination.”
Einar/Lili was happily married to Gerda, at least until his gender issues emerged. Initially, Gerda (played in the film by rising star Alicia Vikander) treats Lili playfully and even uses Lili as the model for Gerda’s own well-received paintings. They are both forced to grapple with the reality that Einar considers himself a woman accidentally born into a male body. Anxious to have a child together but ultimately unable to do so, the movie powerfully depicts the couple as “giving birth” to Lili through Einar’s transition.
The Danish Girl, both Ebershoff’s novel and the new motion picture, takes some dramatic license in detailing the relationship between Lili and Gerda. Gerda is shown standing by her spouse throughout the gender-confirmation surgeries and being at least partly responsible for having Einar’s/Lili’s journals published in 1933 as the book Man Into Woman. In reality, though, their marriage was annulled and Gerda married another man while Lili was still alive. The movie holds a more romanticized view but, in doing so, delves more deeply into the challenges and risks associated with Lili’s pioneering decision than it might have otherwise.
According to Coxon, “Hers was an incredibly important moment, and one I’d not heard about at all. And I suppose what appealed to me (while writing the script) was telling a universal story through something highly particular.”
I similarly found Lili’s a fascinating story about which I knew nothing. The Danish Girl is beautifully shot by Danny Cohen (who also shot The King’s Speech and Les Miserables) using painterly compositions appropriate to the film’s artistic lead characters. Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) provides a lovely music score too. On the negative side, a gay character played by out actor Ben Whishaw, who can also currently be seen as Q in the new James Bond epic Spectre, is awkwardly under-developed. The film's depiction of transgender issues might also be considered dated by some, although I was able to accept this within the context of its 90-year old true story.
“When I read a script, I go on an instinctive, emotional reaction,” Whishaw shared. “I read this script in one sitting, barely catching my breath. On reflection, I realized that it was about something that’s rarely dealt with in a mainstream film but the themes are universal: it’s about a relationship, and about a person who is trying to be authentic to themselves. (The script) shows kindness, hopefulness and sensitivity, but also how it’s not a walk in the park.”
The finished film shows Einar and Lili undergoing considerable hardships in addition to negotiating their marriage to Gerda. As Einar attempts initially to disassociate himself from his true self, he experiences nosebleeds and painful headaches. In one memorable scene, he pays to watch a private dancer in order to study her movements and sensuality only to have her reciprocate unexpectedly. Once Lili embraces her identity, she is beaten by two men and left for dead before submitting to gender-confirmation surgery while the risky procedures involved were in their infancy.
“Was I daunted by it?” Redmayne reflected on his decision to accept the role. “Yes, I was, but I’m daunted by everything! But I have begun to realize that fear of not doing a character or a story justice is a galvanizing thing — it pushes me forward and makes me work harder.” The actor met with numerous people in the trans community and researched their lives in his effort to make Lili as realistic as possible. Director Tom Hooper also cast transgender actors in background roles. Despite this, The Danish Girl is being met by some criticism that a trans actress wasn’t cast as Lili.
No one can fault Redmayne’s sincere dedication to the role, which also required full-frontal nudity from him. “If you are lucky enough to be given the opportunity to play Lili Elbe and tell her story,” the actor said, “you should be giving every ounce of yourself. It’s a great privilege, and a great responsibility.”
Don’t miss The Danish Girl and the opportunity it presents to learn about Lili’s remarkable life.
Preview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.