Director Tim Hooper, responsible for the excellent Oscar winner ‘The King’s Speech’, is now back with a much more obscure but fascinating historical tale, ‘The Danish Girl’. I was completely unaware of the story of Lili Elbe, the first man to undergo gender reassignment surgery, who lived her last tragic years as a woman.
The film begins slowly as we meet newlyweds Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) in Copenhagen during the 1920s. Einar is a mediocre landscape painter but Gerda is a much more talented portrait artist. We finally break into Act 2 when Einar puts on a pair of stockings to take the place of a female model who fails to show up for one of Gerda’s sessions. The stockings trigger the gushing out of Einar’s repressed feelings that deep inside he’s really a woman.
Soon Einar’s alter ego emerges as Lili, and Gerda brings him to a party, passing him off as Einar’s cousin. The game is short-lived when Gerda catches a possible gay suitor kissing Lili and she expresses her fears that she might be losing a husband. Einar can no longer accept leading a double life and decides he’s much more comfortable as Lili than Einar.
Perhaps the most dramatic scenes in the film involve Lili attempting to get help for all the anxiety she’s experiencing in her transition to life as a woman. The reactionary character of the medical establishment appears in high relief when one professional after another labels her as a deviant. Lili must flee these phony “helpers” with the threat she may be institutionalised and possibly lobotomised. The average man on the street also shows their brutal intolerance when Lili is beaten up by a couple of thugs who are offended by her effeminate mannerisms.
The Danish Girl is based on a novel and one gets the feeling that the true life Lili Elbe was a bit more interesting and complicated than the way she is depicted here. Redmayne does well in conveying Lili’s angst in transitioning to the opposite gender but appears also to fall in love with the character’s affectations as opposed to conveying different aspects of her personality. When Lili takes a job as a salesgirl, all she aspires to is enjoying gossipy conversations with her co-workers. In contrast, Gerda is a woman feminists can be proud of—her career takes off when she sells portraits of Lili that rival any of the well-known artists of the day.
There is no doubt that Lili was a pioneer and very brave in attempting gender reassignment at a time when the odds of such a procedure being successful were extremely low. But I would argue that this seemingly virtuous act is not enough to classify the Lili depicted here as a compelling character. Hooper does indeed attempt to flesh Lili out a bit by suggesting that her neediness bordered on narcissism. This is reflected particularly on how we’re supposed to feel about Gerda’s reaction to the loss of Einar—in the film she’s conflicted when Einar’s childhood friend, Hans Axgil, wants to become involved with her. Hans is actually a fictional character and in real life, Gerda was bisexual and lived for quite a while with Lili. It appears Gerda’s despair over the loss of her “husband” was invented, in order to create some additional drama, to move the story along.
The Danish Girl ends on a wistful note. It’s implied that because Lili did not wait to heal after her first operation, this led to her death. According to history, she had a series of operations and the last one, which involved in the implantation of a womb, led to her early demise. Whatever the case, Lili’s desire to live as a woman was so strong that she was willing to take the risk of surgery, despite the obvious odds of failure. The Danish Girl is worth seeing as a fascinating history lesson but keep in mind some of it is probably more fiction than fact.