“It’s what I dream. They’re Lili’s dreams.”
It’s difficult to fathom what Lili Elbe went through in the 1920s—and not just living as a transgender woman at a time where there was no name for it, but also to undergo surgeries as advanced as sex reassignment a century ago. You’d like to believe her life would have been easier one hundred years later yet if Tom Hooper‘s The Danish Girl is any indication it would have been pretty much the same. The virtually insurmountable struggles of bigots and homophobic doctors quickly labeling her schizophrenic before giving credence to the notion that the man in front of them contained a woman inside remain today. The difference is it’s not as easy to hide now with a populace no longer willfully pretending their eyes are mistaken.
This might be the film’s most profound aspect. Scripted by Lucinda Coxon as an adaptation of David Ebershoff‘s fictionalized account of Elbe’s transition, the position taken by everyone—including Lili (Eddie Redmayne)—is the delusional belief that the woman introduced as Einar Wegener’s sister isn’t Einar himself. Everyone delivers a visible double take before doing their best not to be the one who notices while his tears afterwards telling wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) that he got away just in time prove a somber reality of unparalleled fear. It takes time for Einar to disappear completely so that Lili can live, the constant back and forth destroying both identities as social norms force them to pretend. Somehow it ends up being Gerda who helps pave Lili’s way to freedom.
Many people are hailing Redmayne and Vikander as shoe-ins for Oscar nominations if not victories—and they aren’t wrong—while also lamenting how the film doesn’t do them justice. To a point I can understand such a sentiment, but I mostly find it erroneous. The Danish Girl may not seem like it has much by the way of plot, but its depiction of Lili and Gerda’s evolution is extremely complex and resonate. What Hooper and company have put onscreen is the struggle many have faced and continue to face today. It’s a document of the power our humanity wields to listen to our hearts and not let convention dictate our lives. Despite supplying a rather optimistic vantage with only one episode of pure violence, this message rings true.
On one hand you have a female portrait painter constantly looked upon as mediocre in the shadow of her landscape painter husband deemed a virtuoso and on the other a man who’s felt the allure of femininity since a young age that’s reawakened to how natural and comfortable it fits his soul. As the former flounders and the latter flourishes in their careers, the laugh of a game the two concoct to dress Einar as a woman for their dancer friend Ulla’s (Amber Heard) party changes the venue of their trajectories. Suddenly this lark gives Gerda inspiration as she paints “Lili” to great acclaim and Einar discovers “Lili” is actually Lili thanks to the warm smile of homosexual acquaintance Henrik (Ben Whishaw). Yet the Wegeners’ love still endures.
Einar’s realization is handled deftly and with care like it must when the change happens during a modeling session where Gerda needs someone to wear ballet shoes to finish her painting. Her husband is madly in love with her and quick to do whatever she needs, but while it begins as a joke the inclusion of the dress draped over his legs stirs something long dormant. At first it does seem a bit convenient that he suddenly feels the need to escape his body because some lace touched him, but we do soon learn it’s been a long time coming. So while Gerda’s painting reminded Einar of who he was, it didn’t change him. As Lili says, “God made me a woman.” This moment was always coming.
The film becomes an intimate portrayal of complicated love as Gerda and Lili traverse the canvas of their emotions to move forward in each other’s lives. It’s an immersive performance by Redmayne, his body transforming when Lili is onscreen as Einar’s depiction gradually reveals her forever beneath the surface too. At first the character separates the two, but eventually his mannerisms alter as the psychological transfer completes. He starts to dream Lili’s dreams and suddenly Einar’s gone. The reversal is subtle yet ever-present: two distinct identities becoming one so that Einar’s later scenes are in fact Lili in drag. Maybe a trans-actor should have been given the role, but Redmayne does it justice by becoming a woman pretending to be a man rather than the other way around.
As amazing a turn as it is, Vikander is never overshadowed. Her role is just as devastating and intricate; Gerda’s growth from spurned, confused wife to loving, compassionately empathetic friend cannot be diminished. She isn’t rendered as the clichéd “wife” at all—they’re equals from the beginning without a shred of patronization or ego. Her career’s as important as his and their love most of all. That level of devotion wavers briefly but never breaks. She understands what Lili needs and accepts the man she married no longer exists. Vikander is a tense ball of nerves doing her best to help while working through her own crisis with the help of her own confidants. Lili has Henrik, Gerda Ulla, and both interestingly have Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts).
This character could’ve been awkward—a catalyst from Einar’s past and shoulder for Gerda’s present—but Han’s sensitivity to Lili’s existence is necessary. He and Doctor Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), the one going against industry vitriol to attempt the reassignment surgery, are key players keeping a happy outcome alive whether they overshadow the truth of otherwise massive public disgust or not. This sense of optimism and hope is crucial to bringing this tale to life as the origin of a transgender icon for men and women struggling with the same fight today. So while The Danish Girl isn’t “gritty” or perhaps wholly honest plot-wise, it’s less interested in the history than the person. If Lili and Gerda could do this with such courage in the 20s, anything is possible.
 Eddie Redmayne stars as Lili Elbe, in Tom Hooper’s THE DANISH GIRL, released by Focus Features. Credit: Focus Features
 Alicia Vikander stars as Gerda Wegener in Tom Hooper’s THE DANISH GIRL, released by Focus Features. Credit: Focus Features
 Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Hans in Tom Hooper’s THE DANISH GIRL, released by Focus Features. Credit: Focus Features