The Danish Girl is a partially fictionalized biography about the very real Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery. The account imagines the experience of Einar Wegener, a man living in Europe who underwent a series of procedures from 1930–1931. It is based on a 2000 novel by American writer David Ebershoff. The tale begins in the early 1920s in Copenhagen, Denmark. Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a successful landscape artist married to Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), also an aspiring painter and illustrator. However Einar is the more well regarded of the two. Gerda just hasn’t found the right muse. One day Gerda asks if her husband would stand in for their ballerina friend Ulla (Amber Heard) who hasn’t arrived as the model. He dons female stockings and shoes so that his wife can finish painting that part of the picture. Einar is oddly comforted by the experience.
At first, Gerda seems remarkably receptive to her husband’s inclination to dress in women’s clothes. In fact, she promotes it initially, helping him disguise as a woman to attend a society party so he won’t be recognized. To her, it’s a game that she encourages not knowing the extent to which it starts to cement Einar’s feelings. They have fun passing him off as Lili, Einar’s visiting female cousin. However the game goes too far when Gerda catches her husband’s interaction with another party guest (Ben Whishaw). The previously unflappable Gerda, is a bit unnerved.
The production is a gorgeous period piece of costumes and manners. In the 1920s there was no transsexual or transgender vocabulary. Gender identity vs. sexual orientation were not even understood as separate ideas by most of the medical establishment. Einar’s case was unheard of at the time. While the chronicle is ostensibly a drama about the metamorphosis of Einar Wegener, what captivates the mind more is the journey of his wife. Gerda’s realization of how deep her husband’s feelings go is the most compelling thrust of the narrative. Whether that is intentional is perhaps irrelevant if the story is interesting — and it is. However it is at the expense of truly deep comprehension of what makes Einar Wegener tick. The jump from putting on women’s clothes to getting a “sex-change” operation is such a massive leap. The screenplay lacks the required depth to explain the idea in the mind of the viewer. As a result our sympathies start to align with Gerda, trying to wrap our heads around Einar’s struggle that leads to a difficult decision we don’t fully grasp.
Despite the film’s title, Gerda Wegener is the more intriguing presence as the wife. The production begins so tastefully restrained and sensitive that it initially resembles any number of well mounted period pieces that incur respect. Both Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander give compelling performances that sell the narrative. Eddie Redmayne has the showier role. At one point Einar visits a seedy part of Paris to see a peep-show — but not for pleasure. No he is actually there to study the graceful movements of the stripper who performs for him. It’s a memorable vignette. Redmayne ably demonstrates the persona of a man who became a woman with the right mixture of sincerity and uncertainty that the part requires. Yet Vikander slowly seizes our focus. Her journey becomes just as important as that of the title character. Gerda’s gradual understanding that her marriage will forever change is a dramatic story arc. Her strength of resolve to indulge her husband, is kind of incredible. This would be true of any age, but particularly given this era. Yet her support never seems unnatural or anachronistic. We are fascinated by this woman, oddly even more so than her husband’s landmark decision.