a review by John Wilson
The Danish Girl (2015, 1 hr. 59 min., directed by Tom Hooper) is a mesmerizing, moving account of how transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (originally Einar Wegener) came to be one of the first persons known to have gender reassignment surgery. Adapted from David Ebershoff’s 2000 fictionalized novel, it features Eddie Redmayne’s amazing performance as Einar. He discovers who he really is, and transitions into Lili. Alicia Vikander, as Einar/Lili’s wife, is brilliant in her almost equally demanding role, at times becoming the central focus.
The film is mainly situated in a lush, 1920’s middle class Copenhagen where Einar is a celebrated landscape artist. Wife Gerda is also an artist. She fights for recognition – until she starts painting the emerging Lili as a femme fatale, which started with a whimsical, half-joking sitting by Einar for her as a female model.
But for him this is the start of his self-realization as Lili.
Lili endures horrific experiences consulting with “experts” in the biased and prejudiced medical system who are determined to “cure” her, or banish her to a psychiatric facility. Then she meets Dr. Warnekros (Sebastian Koch) who proposes what he candidly described as experimental and risky gender reassignment surgery. Of all the doctors, only he seems to have a sympathetic understanding of what she is going through. (Since Lili, who was raised in a context of relative class privilege, suffered such difficulty, can we imagine how truly impossible would be the situation of a transgender person born to a working class family?)
Gerda is steadfast in her love and support for Lili – despite being very conflicted and confused by a process she knows will lead to her losing her husband.
In short, this film is well worth seeing. It comes at a time when transgender issues are finally gaining prominence – thanks to decades of LGBTQ activism. Despite ongoing challenges of medical access, the cost of surgery, and persisting prejudice, in Canada and elsewhere real gains are being made. In revolutionary Cuba, the treatment is free. We should note, though, that with all the attention that this film is deservedly getting, other pioneering films, such as Transamerica, are being overlooked.