It’s 90 years ago in Denmark, after the Great War (in which Denmark was neutral), and before another war in which penicillin allowed people to survive surgical infections. In 1926, the “bohemian” lifestyle in Paris has hastened to all the other urban areas in Europe, even the continent’s farthest west country. Artists Gerda Wegener (Norway’s Alicia Vikander) and Einar Wegener (London’s Eddie Redmayne) live in a spacious antique-blue loft whose high windows shimmer in the sea-kissed sunlight. Einar’s already made a name for himself as a landscape artist, with his series of skeleton trees seen from his childhood home on the Jutland Peninsula. Gerda is a portrait artist, talented, but like most women artists at that time, she hasn’t been able to find an agent who will sell her work.
Einar dresses in the stuffy black-and-white outfits men favored at the time. Gerda wears lively, sensual fabrics that drape her slim frame and send irresistible flirty messages. In what must be the happiest, most tender, most loving marriage on-screen in ages, Gerda and Einar seem like “the perfect couple.”
“My life,” Einar whispers to Gerda, “my wife.”
They are the envy of their single friends, especially the effervescent ballet dancer Ulla (Amber Heard).
One day Gerda, annoyed that Ulla is late for her portrait sitting, asks Einar to pose for her instead. At first reluctantly, then with more enthusiasm, Einar rolls sheer stockings up his long hairy legs, squeezes narrow feet into bejeweled slippers, and fluffs clouds of white tulle around his shoulders. He strikes exaggerated femme-fatale postures, inspiring Gerda’s mischievous creativity, and proving he’s a natural coquette.
Unbeknownst to Gerda, though, this experience triggers the release of Einar’s deep secret — as successful a man as he is in both his intimate and his public lives, he is miserable because he’s convinced he is really a woman. And this woman now wants to come out and live life as herself. He calls her Lili. As a joke, Gerda decides to take Lili as her date to the Artists’ Masquerade Ball. She teaches Einar the nuances of feminine body language, creates a bright red “flapper” wig that shows off his swan neck, and drapes him in fabulous clothes. He develops a coy peek-a-boo look and keeps Einar’s million-dollar smile. Lili is a big hit, so much so that portraits of her become an Art Deco sensation and the couple moves to Paris.
Alas, Lili becomes so real that Gerda, insight after painful insight, begins to fear she no longer has a husband. And Lili, in her equally heartbreaking path, learns that artifice, no matter how convincing, is not enough to make her a real woman. To be a real woman, she believes she must have a woman’s body. So begins her arduous, historic journey toward the surgeon’s scalpel.
English director Tom Hooper loves stories about people who reinvent themselves (such as King George VI, who must overcome a dismaying stutter in The King’s Speech, 2010). The Danish Girl will not win any awards for factual accuracy — what makes it great is the compassion Hooper gives his characters and the sensitive way he handles the issues of the film, which were as difficult 90 years ago as they are in today’s new-law headlines.
Compassion can’t be hurried, and the elegant pace of The Danish Girl might be too slow for some. But bear with. The film’s extraordinary, detailed visual beauty will stay with you long after the movie is over. And so will the stories of Gerda and Einar and Lili, a trio of genteel warriors in uncharted history.
The Danish Girl
Quick Take: Tragic, fictionalized love story of married artists, one of whom becomes a pioneer in sex-change surgery.
Special Appeal: Exquisite performances and breathtaking visual beauty.
Players: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts.
Director: CTom Hooper (The King’s Speech, 2010; Les Miserables, 2012).
Color, 2008, 119 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality and full nudity.
Showing at the Tryon Film Society, Mon and Tuesday, May 9 and 10, at 7pm.
Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Association) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Association) Email her at email@example.com.