Einar Wegener was a successful landscape painter in Copenhagen in the 1920s, married to another artist and living a lie. He was a woman in a man’s body, unable to be his true self. His determination to change his fate, first by dressing as a woman, then taking on a new identity as Lili Elbe and becoming one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, is the subject of The Danish Girl, a new movie based on David Ebershoff’s novel.
Ebershoff made no attempt to write a historical account of Einar’s transition to Lili and created everyone but the main character from his imagination; in the novel, Einar is married to an American from Ebershoff’s hometown. Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon and director Tom Hooper are more faithful to the facts: They place Einar and Gerda Wegener at the center of Danish culture and include the pivotal incident in which Einar wears women’s clothes when one of his wife’s models doesn’t show up for a sitting.
In the movie, Einar and Gerda are played by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander as soul mates, artists united in a pure love. Einar is diffident, uneasy around strangers and unable to enjoy his artistic success, always turning away. Putting on stockings and makeup is thrilling, a secret game that Gerda joins enthusiastically, escorting Lili to a party and introducing her as Einar’s cousin. It’s all great fun until Lili attracts and enjoys the attention of a man (Ben Whishaw) and doesn’t want to go back to being Einar.
The tension this causes, Lili’s push to break free and Gerda’s struggle to accept that the man she loves no longer wants to be a man, is the core of The Danish Girl. Redmayne’s performance is as technically accomplished as his Oscar-winning role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything but lacks a point of entry that would bring the audience inside this amazing journey. Vikander is an emotional whirlwind, wounded and stubborn and brave and confused. Her tears are frequent and hard-earned and her efforts to understand what was unheard of at the time anchor a movie that drifts persistently toward high-toned melodrama.
Hooper is no strangers to Oscars after The King’s Speech, but The Danish Girl is way more like his Les Miserables, gorgeous but hollow, than the tough realism he showed in The Damned United. Hooper can direct actors, but his preferred method has become the closeup and he stacks big scenes until their impact is dulled. When Einar and Gerda are going to one doctor after another and being told he is gay or insane or has a “condition” that can be “cured” through some awful treatment, The Danish Girl feels real. When Lili is in the hospital, facing difficult operations and making emotional speeches, it feels more like a movie, a slow one.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch.
Director: Tom Hooper.
Screenwriter: Lucinda Coxon
A Focus Features release. Running time: 120 minutes. Nudity, sexuality. Opens Dec. 25 at area theaters.