In 2015, Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for his poignant portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. In The Danish Girl, Redmayne plays another icon who is virtually upstaged onscreen by an intriguing spouse. Here, he plays Einar Wegener aka Lili Elbe (1882-1931), a Danish artist best remembered as a pioneer in the transgender movement.
Directed by Oscar winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), the film was adapted from David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name. The book is based on a fictionalized account of Lili’s life, although her sexual reassignment surgery is factual.
Redmayne’s androgynous appearance helps the movie immeasurably, as he is very convincing as a female. The picture is very timely in light of Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner.
The picture’s point of departure is Copenhagen in the Roaring Twenties, which is where we find Einar and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) both working as aspiring artists. Her preference is portraiture, while he’s only been inspired to paint the same desolate landscape marked by a clump of spindly, barren trees.
Things change when Gerda suggests that he serve as a stand-in for the model (Amber Heard) whom she was supposed to paint that day. Einar dons female attire and finds himself enjoying the experience more than he expected.
Next thing you know, he’s secretly slipping out into public in drag and even attends a soiree where he attracts an ardent admirer (Ben Whishaw) who is probably unaware of Lili’s true gender. The pair’s ensuing courtship eventually mushrooms into passion, and the scandalous infidelity puts a strain on Einar and Gerda’s marriage.
Nevertheless, the movie’s main feature is the historic decision for Einar to undergo the world’s first sex change operation. Redmayne would be the favorite to win another Academy Award for Einar’s seamless metamorphosis into Lili, if he hadn’t just received one a year ago.
Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality and nudity. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.