In 2005, Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain made romantic love between two men a possible plotline at the multiplex, at a time when that step still felt radical—even if the thwarted lovers at its center were both played by straight actors. In 2008, Gus Van Sant’s Milk brought the political battle for gay rights to the movie theater years before even the most optimistic advocates thought marriage equality was a plausible short-term goal—but the actor who won an Oscar for playing California’s first openly gay elected official was, once again, straight. In 2013, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club brought attention to the courage of early AIDS activists—even as its two lead characters were a straight HIV-positive man played by a straight actor and a transgender woman played by another straight actor.
Now Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl proposes to similarly focus on the increasingly visible phenomenon of gender transition—even if, once again, the lead role is taken by a straight male movie star. It has long since become officially weird that Hollywood seems to have such trouble locating qualified gay or transgender performers in an industry that is, by all evidence, teeming with both. Still, there’s a utility and a kind of nobility to these trailblazing “baby steps” movies. They leverage the name recognition and box-office power of known stars to explore issues of gender and sexual identity that, for all the U.S.’s recent progress in this domain, may still be unfamiliar and alienating to large portions of the audience both here and around the world.
But The Danish Girl is a baby-steps movie made at a time when it shouldn’t be necessary to tread quite so gingerly. Hooper’s film is adapted by Lucinda Coxon (who also co-wrote Crimson Peak) from a 2000 David Ebershoff novel that fictionalized the true story of Lili Elbe, a trans woman who began life in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1882 as Einar Wegener. Wegener, an acclaimed landscape painter, was happily married to Gerda Wegener, also an artist who would eventually find success as a fashion illustrator. In the mid-1920s, when a female friend whom Gerda was painting failed to show up for a modeling session, Gerda suggested that the slightly built Einar don her clothes and sit for the portrait in her place. In the words of Lili—whose heavily edited diaries and letters would be published in 1933 under the title Man Into Woman—“I cannot deny … that I enjoyed myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing … I felt very much at home in them from the first moment.”
This scene of self-discovery comes early in the film, as the shy, reclusive Einar (Eddie Redmayne) first senses himself being transformed into—or, as he will later express it, inhabited by—the flirtatious and playful Lili. (The name is bestowed on Einar’s emerging female self by the Wegeners’ free-spirited dancer friend, winningly played by Amber Heard.) Far from recoiling at her husband’s newfound passion for cross-dressing, Gerda (Ex Machina’s Alicia Vikander) at first enters into the spirit of what she perceives to be a mischievous lark. The two of them attend a society ball where they pass off the painter as Einar’s visiting cousin from the provinces, fully decked out in makeup, wig, dress and heels. The frisson of curiosity that surrounds this unusual-looking guest strikes the bohemian Gerda as both a hoot and a turn-on—at least until she catches another guest (Ben Whishaw) kissing her husband in a secluded corner.
Einar’s transformation into Lili took place in a time when there was not only no language but no conceptual apparatus to understand such a change. In the movie’s long (a bit too long) middle section, the couple struggles to define what’s taking place inside their marriage and within the body and mind of Lili herself. Is the problem simply, as a series of doctors insist, that Einar needs medical treatment to regain his lost virility? Does Einar, as Gerda tearfully insists at one point, just need to cut out the nonsense, put on a starched-collar shirt, and turn back into her husband again?
Finally the troubled Wegeners meet a German surgeon, Dr. Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), who understands Lili’s deep belief that, inside, she has always been a woman. Warnekros, an early pioneer of gender reassignment surgery, offers to treat the patient at his Dresden clinic. The operations he proposes are untested and risky, but Lili moves ahead despite Gerda’s misgivings.
Like Hooper’s Oscar-winning The King’s Speech—another drama about two people working together to effect a profound inner transformation in one of them—The Danish Girl can be too tasteful and reverent for its own good. Before Einar’s gender shift begins in earnest the Wegeners are shown as having an active sex life, but once Lili’s identity has emerged there’s a curious reticence to explore what, if anything, the two women do in bed together. In real life, Gerda seems to have been a bisexual who welcomed Einar’s new female persona while also taking other lovers of both sexes. But in the film, after Lili’s emergence, the character of Gerda starts to recede into the role of generic supportive wife, though the bristling intelligence of Vikander’s performance keeps her interesting anyway. (We do see her seek comfort in the arms of Lili’s childhood friend Hans, played by the hunky Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts.)
The film’s vision of Lili after her surgery, languishing on a chaise longue in a state of sickly yet glamorous pallor, veers perilously near tragic drag-queen territory. But Redmayne’s performance is so sensitive and acutely observed that the character never gets stuck in that zone for long. In the early days of Einar’s transformation, Redmayne conveys the degree to which gender is, for all of us, a skill acquired through observation and imitation. Observing a pretty girl through the glass at a Paris peep show, Einar longs not to possess her but to be her, and the quiet moment that passes between them when she sees him copying her gestures makes for one of the movie’s best scenes.
There are fewer quiet moments to be found in the score by Alexandre Desplat, which, while lovely in and of itself, is so frequently and vigorously deployed that I began to long for the emotional privacy of being allowed to feel my own feelings on my own time. But the production and costume design—by Eve Stewart and Paco Delgado, respectively—are as luscious to look at as they are thoroughly researched. The Wegeners’ apartment, a barren, light-flooded space with oil painting–bedecked walls and rough-hewn wood floors, was inspired by the interiors of the early 20th-century Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi. It’s so cool-looking I predict a run on Scandinavian design firms by arty couples seeking the Hammershoi look.
The battle being waged inside Eddie Redmayne’s character in The Danish Girl can be described as one in which Einar’s shame is slowly but steadily being defeated by Lili’s pride. That’s a decent analogy for where our country stands right now with regard to gay and transgender issues. The side of pride is gaining ground, the shaming voices are dwindling in volume and influence, but the struggle is far from over. Will the earnest, posh transgender melodrama of The Danish Girl seem as dated in two decades as Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia does today? Maybe. But when Philadelphia was released to popular success after nearly a decade of mainstream cinema—not to mention the government—all but ignoring the AIDS epidemic, I remember many of my friends, gay and straight, being tremendously moved by the film and its reception. Even—especially—when Hanks won an Oscar and dedicated it to his gay high-school drama teacher. If we can just get some of those groundbreaking roles—and maybe even those shiny gold statues—into the hands of lesbian, gay, and transgender actors, the battle against shame will be that much closer to being won.