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Lili Emerges As The Danish Girl

Updated on April 25, 2016

The Danish Girl tells the tale of a man who comes to identify himself as a woman. The story begins in 1926 Copenhagn, where Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) has been proclaimed by one gallery owner as an artist "in the top one" of Danish landscape artists. Meanwhile, his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) struggles to get recognition for her portrait art. One day, a female subject fails to keep a promise to pose for her, so Gerda prevails upon Einar to pose in women's attire. Soon, he starts to dress as a female without posing. When Einar doesn't want to attend an artist's ball. Gerda helps to get him a dress and a wig and convinces him to go, saying he's Einar's cousin Lili. At the ball, he gets the attention of a young man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw). They almost become intimate until Henrik says something that upsets Einar. As Einar stats to assume a new identity, Lili stops painting. With Gerda's support, Einar seeks out the help of a top Danish physician, who thinks Einar belongs in an institution.

Gerda will not go along with that, and the success of her paintings which used her husband in feminine attire allow the couple to leave Copenhagen for Paris. Soon, Gerda makes the acquaintance of Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), an art dealer and old friend of Einar's from their home country. He wants to help Einar, who has stopped painting as she makes the transition to Lili, but he also grows close to Gerda, who realizes she's losing the man she has loved. Einar seeks the help of French specialists, who reach the same conclusion as the Danish doctor. A helpful suggestion from the Wegeners' friend Ulla (Amber Heard) leads them to the office of Professor Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), a Dresden doctor who has an opposing viewpoint regarding Lili's sanity. The professor, in fact, proposes a two-part surgery to Lili that he cautions is both dangerous and irreversible.

I'm sure the subject of gender dysphoria, in terms of drama, poses a big task for any actor or any director. The Danish Girl, based on a novel by David Ebershoff and inspired by the life of Einar/Lili, handles certain aspects of Einar's transition, especially when the film looks at Gerda's feelings. She goes through a range of emotions from playful accptance to concern to support as she realizes that Einar wants to live as a woman. Director Tom Hooper has enjoyed great success with period pieces, winning an Oscar for The King's Speech and garnering acclaim for other films such as Elizabeth I and Les Miserables, the latter two including Redmayne in the cast. The Danish Girl, doesn't create the same sort of interest in the title character as it does for Gerda. Einar, at one point, says that he first felt his woman inside in a childhood encounter interrupted - and severely corrected - by his father. While I don't doubt his devotion to Gerda, I think that Einar should have done more to quietly change, such as letting his hair grow or wearing it in a more womanly way. I also didn't see a real conflict inside Einar/Lili regarding his decision to become Lili. The screenplay from Lucinda Coxon also seems to let Einar go of his art work far too easily. I admire the ambition of the picture, but the end result is less than satisfactory.

Redmayne gives a sincere performance as Einar/Lili, coming to grips with a serious life issue most will never face. His work, though, is not in the same league with the memorable performance given by John Lithgow as the transgendered ex-NFL player Roberta Muldoon in The World According To Garp. Lithgow embodied the transition, while Redmayne seems more like a body in women's clothing. He is much more convincing dressed as Einar than he is dressed as Lili. As Lili, he'd already passed a real life test of sorts; yet, he more often lived as Lili in private than in public. Vikander outshines her co-star as Gerda, an artist who found her success as Einar gave up his. She may want to have a family with her husband, but she is also willimg to do anything to help. She knows her request wakened old feelings in Einar, and sadly watches as he follows his ultimate desire. Schonaerts and Koch deliver decent performances in their small roles.

Lili Elbe's story has, without a doubt, helped many who fell the way she did, as well as to those in the medical community who treat the transgendered. The Danish Girl provides some insight for viewers, but that insight comes more from the prime witness to the transition than to the woman herself. Contrary to what this film may seem to indicate, some societies over the millennia have not only acknowledged gender dysphoria, but they found ways to accept the condition in their culture. The medium of film, just like many people today, doesn't have the best understanding of these matters. The Danish Girl is definitely better than the infamously campy Glen Or Glenda, but the former doesn't make such a personal issue as personal as it should be. The title character keeps her distance, and never really makes her world open to examination.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Danish Girl 2.5 stars. A film portrait without distinction.


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