The Danish Girl Review
By Samantha Kay
4.5 out of 5 Stars
I saw “The Danish Girl” as part of a special screening sponsored by The Transgender Institute on December 15, 2015. Purposefully I refrained from reading any reviews prior to the viewing, but I did read up on the life of Einar Wegener so as to gain some historical balance. (It should be noted that while the movie is based on historical notes, it is not considered a documentary. The timeline and some of the finer points, including the details around her surgery, have been met with creative licensing). Besides viewing the movie with members of the LGBT community I was joined by my wife, Julie. For the record I am a transgender woman and this review reflects my opinion with input from Julie and others.
Be aware there are spoilers and possible triggers.
The Danish Girl is a movie inspired by the lives of Einar and Gerda Wegener played respectively by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. The movie was directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables”). It is based on the true the story of how Einar transitions and becomes one of the first transgender women to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
The movie portrays a story of love between Einar and Gerda Wegener, a married couple, set in Copenhagen during the 1920s. Both Einar and Gerda are painters with Einar being an accomplished painter of landscapes while Gerda is struggling to gain an audience for her portrait paintings. They live a somewhat bohemian lifestyle with friends that participate in the arts including their friend Ulla (Amber Heard) who is involved in ballet.
During one of Gerda’s painting sessions her portrait model was unable to attend so she asks Einar to sit in as a temporary replacement. While hesitant he succumbs to Gerda’s pressure and sits for the painting with a dress draped over his legs and his feet in heels. During the session he is taken back by the feeling of the dress and fabric against his skin. A few moments later Ulla drops in carrying a bouquet and after a bit of innocent teasing places one of the flowers on his lap and dubs him Lily. Later that evening Gerda asks if there is something he wishes to tell her and he replied, “Is there something you want to hear?” In one of the proceeding evenings she discovers he is wearing women’s undergarments as a way of sharing his femme persona.
Gerda later paints his portrait while he is sleeping and adds feminine characteristics. Jointly they go to the backstage of the theatre and pick out an outfit and wig. Gerda continues to paint the portrait of a freshly made up Lily with porcelain skin, auburn hair and red lips. Shortly thereafter Gerda’s portraits of Lily catch the eye of a local art dealer and her painting career takes off. Then while preparing for a social gathering they both decide to present Lily to the public as part of a social experiment and game. The ruse becomes real for Lily, and the ensuing transition begins. During this time their relationship changes. In one scene Gerda announces, “I need my husband”. This line resonated with both myself and Julie. The tears in both our eyes began to swell while we clenched hands and a glance was shared.
During the middle part of the movie several things take place. Lily begins to present more frequently and Gerda continues to paint her portraits. Lily begins to seek medical advice and is met with skepticism and is diagnosed with everything from schizophrenia to homosexuality. The medical community even suggested shock therapy, brain surgery and placement in a mental facility. After the initial shock therapy the reply to the question, “how are you doing” was a somber, “you hurt Lily.”
In part to avoid further scrutiny, and due to Gerda’s painting career, they move to Paris and Lily begins to present full-time. Lily researches her gender identity at the local library and while heading home she is assaulted and severely beaten. At about this time a third character is introduced, Hans Axgil, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, an old friend of Einar whom Gerda seeks out. Gerda learns from Hans that Einar and he shared an innocent kiss when they were young and Einar was wearing his grandmother’s kitchen apron. He rekindles his friendship with Einar and meets Lily. Hans acts as an ally for both Einar/Lily and Gerda.
Eventually they end up moving back to Copenhagen, and they learn of a surgeon that has developed a procedure for transsexual surgery. The process is explained as a two-part operation. The first one removes the male genitals, and the second is to implant a womb. After recovering from the first surgery Lily takes a job at a local department store and blends with the other women selling cosmetics and perfumes. Their relationship stays strong although Gerda is struggling and seeks out support from Hans. Eventually Lily decides to undergo the second surgery so as to align her body and possibly bear children. The organ transplant is rejected and Lily passes while recuperating at the surgical hospital.
The movie ends with Gerda and Hans visiting the homeland where Einar grew up and viewing a landscape depicted in one of his earlier paintings. A scarf that belonged to Lily blows away into the wind as the movie credits begin to roll.
Overall I think the movie was great, and has been nominated for a few academy awards.1 The costume and set design were excellent and captured what life must have been like in 1920s Copenhagen. The muted colors with bluish tint along with the cobblestone streets and brick buildings were exquisite. The camera angles, slightly above eye level, highlighted Redmayne’s femininity. Casting a cisgender male has been criticized by some but I didn’t see that as a problem as I believe it added to the realism.
Ten years ago I would have been considered cis and the transition as portrayed resonated with me. By the way there is a transgender actress from the “Boy Meets Girl” series, Rebecca Root. She plays acisgender woman as a nurse in this movie. She and many other transwoman consulted on the movie. Seeing transgender actors and actresses in non-trans roles is an important milestone. Besides, Redmayne is an accomplished actor, and I believe he captured the struggles I face as a transgender woman.
While Redmayne’s acting at times seemed technical and crafted, I felt that also added to the realism as I have often acted my way through life as I presented cis. Even when learning to present as my feminine self I would have to act out as a woman and mimic women I admired until I was comfortable. The same thing happens with Einar as he transitions to Lily. Take for example when Lily was walking down the cobblestone street towards the middle of the movie, a 15-second scene but one that could earn him an acting Oscar.
In contrast, the acting of Vikander was exquisite and at times did not seem like acting, which is the hallmark of a great performance. I do wish they had expanded on the depth of her character as well as the challenges a partner goes through while the other is transitioning. Although they did touch on this subject, I think it could have been further developed without taking away from the main story. I also enjoyed the character of Ulla, the glamorous friend of both Einar/Lily and Gerda, and Amber Heard deserves a nod for her supporting role, both in the movie and with Lily’s transition.
In some reviews there was criticism of the characterization of Einar becoming Lily as sexualized and fraught with femme erotica. I didn’t get that although I did sense the enjoyment and excitement Einar experienced while touching and wearing stockings. I think being attractive can be sexy without introducing aspects of erotica or fetishism and I believe the writers pulled that off. There is a scene when in a dysphoric state Einar rushes to the theatre and pulls clothing and accessories from the rack and stops in front of a mirror. He quickly discards his male attire, like a suit made of fiberglass, and examines his body while tucking his genitalia. In another scene, Einar/Lily mimics a girl from behind glass during a peep show.
I also think the surgery procedures could have been explained a bit more especially for the segment of the audience that doesn’t understand the process. The timeline seemed a bit disjointed with gaps that weren’t explained and others that jumped too quickly. The ending was somewhat of a cliché with the scarf blowing in the wind; however, I did like the tie-in to his earlier landscape paintings when revisiting his childhood home.
All in all I enjoyed the movie. To me it was a love story between two people who both endured challenges as one transitioned. Bottom line is go see the movie and decide for yourself. I do suggest going with supportive friends, loved ones or both. P.S. Bring along a few tissues just in case.
Academy Award Nominations for The Danish Girl
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Eddie Redmayne
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Alicia Vikander
- Best Achievement in Production Design: Eve Stewart and Michael Standish
- Best Achievement in Costume Design: Paco Delgado
Did you see The Danish Girl? What did you think?