We are conditioned as an audience to immediately side with the troubled protagonist – they are misunderstood, struggling to find identity, and deeply wounded inside. They face a world where they are ridiculed and ostracized. This was especially hard in The Danish Girl, because as sweet as the protagonist is, she’s not terribly likable.
Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything, Jupiter Ascending) is a successful painter in Denmark. He has popular showings, sells his paintings, and he and wife Gerda live comfortably. When Gerda (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina, The Fifth Estate) needs a stand-in for her own paintings, Einar agrees to pose for her. awakening in him a second life. What starts out as a fun, variation to their married life, becomes the birth of a whole new person, one not recognized by either Gerda or Einar, but permanent just the same..
On the surface, Einar’s transformation to Lili could be viewed as selfish. I don’t say that because I’m unsympathetic to Becoming and Exploring, but essentially, Gerda gives Einar free-range the explore all of Lili – dressing up, makeup, becoming, and ultimately Lili turns her back on her. She sneaks out, disappears, become emotionally difficult. In the beginning, there is a symbiotic relationship (model and muse). Then, Lili decides while Gerda and Einar had a wonderful marriage, Lili and Gerda cannot, and Lili wants to be more on her own, find her own way, have children – feel normal. That feeling normal doesn’t include Gerda and it’s heartbreaking.
This pain is all over Gerda’s face, and for that alone – the backseat she takes first as Einar’s wife and professional colleague, then as Lili’s companion – Alicia Vikander deserves an Oscar. Gerda is never bitter nor does she lash out and this exotic creature living in her husband’s skin. She stands by, painfully accepting the loss of the man she loved to the woman living inside him. They both become new women Gerda confidently embracing her role as Artist and Provider, while Lili tries to be her new self, but wearing it like ill-fitting shoes. It is in this that Gerda is clearly the stronger of the two characters – supporting a difficult transition, possible infidelity, even a small professional rivalry, while Lili regresses, become less responsible, more twee – if such a thing is possible in 1920 Denmark. Without her, we lose the filter of devotion and love. Vikander holds this picture together, for without Gerda’s love and support, it is very Likely Lili would have been committed and perished in an asylum.
While this movie is rife with drama and angst, it also full of (perhaps lili-induced) stereotypes: this is what a woman does, this is how she acts, this is how she dresses, these are her expectations. Einar was happy as a husband, strong as a care-giver, proud as an artist. As Lili, she is moody and temperamental and very self-absorbed as Lili. She even stops painting, becoming Lili the model, Lili the muse, Lili the chaste lover. She abandons everything that was Einar and becomes Lili – shopgirl. On one hand, you’re happy for her. On the other hand, you want to shake her and tell her to explore her new life beyond the confines of established gender roles. You want her to be more like Gerda.
I don’t want for a second to take away from Eddie Redmayne’s transformation from Einar to Lili, because they are indeed separate people when on screen, however they both have two predominant expressions – confused bewilderment, and shy embarrassment. It’s adorable for about 20 minutes. Whether this was the director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) letting Redmayne explore Lili, or his own ideas of what how women act, I don’t know, but watching Einar transform from that quiet man you could have tea with to emotional “I’ll do what I want” Lili was hard, and a little unsatisfying. The accolades belong solely to Alicia Vikander. Also notable is the fancy two-stepping of Matthias Schoenaerts as Hans Axgil, a man from Einar’s past finding himself attracted to the exotic newness of Lili, and the naked brokenness inside of Gerda. He presents an additional romantic foil I wasn’t expecting.
Of course this movie is a grand departure from actual events, and a heavily romanticize version of Lili and Gerda’s lives, based on the 2000 book by David Ebershoff, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing the movie. What might stop you is the running time, 119 minutes, which is a lot of film for coquettish giggles, expressions of realization, and disapproving, but resigned determination. It was beautiful to watch the dank depressing waterways of Denmark, and the lush and lavish apartments of Paris, but it was indeed a lot, and even your butt begins to note the passage of time. Another stop for me was the subtle implication that Gerda having Einar dress in woman’s clothing for her painting causing of his transformation to Lili. We really are led to believe that Einar would have been find all of his life if he’d never slipped on those stockings, and maybe if Gerda had kept her marriage minded kink to herself she would have stayed married to him forever, but that’s unfair.
There are logic holes that can only be filled with imagination and speculation, but this is essentially a beautiful film that will receive more than a few Nods from the Academy.