The Danish Girl serves an educational motion-pictures-handbook on gender identity – so it’s best to address this off the top: a cisgender person is someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth, which has nothing to do with being heterosexual or homosexual. It refers to feeling like a woman in a woman’s body or a man in a man’s boy. Transgender, the clear antonym of “cisgender,” is therefore someone whose internal sense of being a man or woman is different than the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s not about who you are attracted to; it’s about who you are.
This topic is seldom discussed on the big screen, contrarily to gay love, which has been proliferating over the years worldwide (from Happy Together in Hong Kong to Blue is The Warmest Color in France, to Brokeback Mountain in the U.S.). But Tom Hooper’s latest work seems to bring us to the origins of awareness for this existential malaise, adapting the story of the first man to go through the “transition”, i.e. the process trans people undertake to bring their body and their gender expression into alignment with their inner gender identity.
David Ebershoff’s debut novel The Danish Girl was first published in 2000 and subsequently won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction, among other honors. Hooper of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables has thereby set himself an ambitious task in adapting it to a film. Yet the result is utterly touching since the filmmaker manages to portray an intimate story between two people that opens up into something with enormous ramifications.
The movie takes us to Copenhagen in 1926. Artist Einar Wegener is married to Gerda Wegener and is revered for landscape paintings. Gerda is also an artist, less renowned but steadily working as a portraitist of prominent citizens. Theirs is a strong and loving marriage, yet all begins to change one day when, on deadline for a portrait, Gerda asks her husband to fill in for a model by putting him in a dress so that she can finish the painting. The experience is transformative, as Einar soon realizes that being Lili is an expression of her truest self, and she begins living her life as a woman. Gerda unexpectedly finds that she has a new muse, and renewed creative ferment. But the couple soon brush up against society’s disapproval.
The pair then embarks on a new life together in Paris, where their senses of self is further expanded upon and explored. Through the other, each of them finds the courage to be who they are at heart. Lili and Gerda’s marriage, and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.
The Danish Girl gets all the ingredients right to make a popular movie out of an unpopular topic. Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) plays with suave delicacy Wegener’s odyssey. There is no mimicry of effeminate stereotypes in his performance. His interpretation confronts hyper-feminization with naturalism while Lili traverses the transition.
As Redmayne embodies the struggle of a female soul trapped in a man’s body, Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) plays with charisma Gerda Wegener, who switches from being the loving wife of Einar to becoming Lili’s best friend and confidant. The two people remain soul mates throughout, and their love evolves from a sexual one to a spiritual one, heightened by the respect and acceptance of the other.
They continue to overcome the hurdles in life as a duo as the couple grows together creatively and personally. The Danish Girl is a story of intimacy between artists where completely new directions open up.
Every trans story is unique and individual; there is no one trans experience. But what is universal to all single trans people is the sensation that Mother Nature assigned a different gender from their own identity. The Danish Girl goes back to the origins of the first transition in history, from a physical and psychological perspective. It brilliantly depicts the hardship in fighting a society that labeled this condition as schizophrenia with people judging transgenders as freaks of nature who should have been locked up if they couldn’t be “cured.”
Wegener’s transition occurred in the late 1920s. But no matter how distant in time this mentality may seem, there are countries today where the culture would not be ready to accept a person’s journey. Even now, in the Land of the Brave and the Free, a person can be fired in over two dozen states for being LGBTQ.
Lili was a hero because she chose to be brave by standing up for herself and not denying who she was. The Danish Girl pays tribute to an amazing person but also to the courageous people nowadays who are taking that journey.
This review was originally published on Sept. 7, 2015, following the Venice Film Festival premiere.