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In The Danish Girl, it doesn’t take much more than a pair of stockings and some kitten heels to make Eddie Redmayne’s Einar first become Lili.
This fictionalized biography of the first known person to undergo gender reassignment surgery posits that Einar, a straight, married landscape artist, one day experienced something like a lightbulb moment when his portraitist wife, Gerda, asks him to don women’s clothing so she can complete a canvas in the absence of her original model.
Einar agrees to shoes and hosiery, but refuses to put on a dress. Gerda wants him only to hold the dress up to his body. They have a laugh. But something about the silk and lace stirs Einar, and when Gerda one night discovers her husband wearing her slip, they together pursue Einar’s interest in dressing as a woman to the point of his attending a posh event as Lili, Einar’s cousin.
By the way, it’s 1926.
Redmayne’s performance as Einar/Lili has been getting raves ever since the Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) film hit the festival circuit. But the attention surrounding his casting hasn’t all been favorable—much of the trans community is critical of the choice to cast a cisgender actor. But the pick seems perfect: a significant portion of the role portrays the character before she undergoes surgery, and Redmayne’s delicate bone structure lends itself to the part. (A bigger question might be why this Danish girl doesn’t speak Danish, or even have a Danish accent.)
Though it’s inarguable that Redmayne is fine here, expressing Einar’s awakening and conflict with the expected fear and turmoil, it’s Alicia Vikander as Gerda who pops off the screen. Here, she sparks with deliberate movements that are confident and often flirtatious, and a tongue that’s a bit tart. She’s taken aback once she realizes that “Lili” is no longer a game—“This is not how it goes,” Gerda says after seeing her spouse kiss a man—but she grows supportive once she accepts that her pain of losing a partner is outweighed by Lili’s pain if she is forced to live life as a man.
The script, adapted by Lucinda Coxon from David Ebershoff’s novel, is a bit too neat, glossing over resistance to Lili’s uncloaking such as a beating she undergoes while walking in a park and the opinion of some medical professionals that Einar is mentally ill. (“It’s not good news,” one doctor says after an exam. “You’re homosexual.”) The couple’s discovery of a man who believes in what is now known as gender dysphoria and is willing to perform surgery is quite fortuitous; a case of two degrees of separation.
Though the film may not hammer home to viewers the difficulties trans individuals face, its gentler, more loving version of one person’s story promotes acceptance. When Lili, following surgery, slowly whispers to Gerda, “I am… entirely… myself,” it’s a touching, Brokeback Mountain moment, drawing a universal motion from its audience even if the particulars of the characters’ struggle might be foreign.
The Danish Girl opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema, Landmark Bethesda Cinema, and Angelika Film Center Mosaic.