After the publicity maelstrom that surrounded Caitlyn Jenner's transition and the success of Amazon's "Transparent" TV series, no contemporary consumer of media need be told what it means to be a transgender woman. In 1926, the situation was very different.
That's the year when "The Danish Girl" begins its story of Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and wife Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). When Einar began to feel like a woman painfully confined inside a man's body and became passionate about reversing that, the couple's situation entered into completely uncharted territory, and dealing with it proved exceptionally difficult for everyone involved.
The film is based on a novel by David Ebershoff, which itself was based on "Man Into Woman," a 1933 nonfiction book that detailed Einar's transition into Lili Eble, one of the first individuals to receive gender reassignment surgery. "The Danish Girl's" director, Tom Hooper, uses conventional filmmaking tropes to tell a story that is anything but.
Best known for "The King's Speech," which won him a best director Oscar, and "Les Miserables," Hooper's style is decorous and decorative, using Danny Cohen's luminous cinematography to create picture-postcard versions of both Copenhagen, where the story begins, and Paris, where the couple ended up moving.
Hooper has the great advantage here of working with Redmayne, last year's Oscar winner for "The Theory of Everything," and Vikander, the actress of the moment with five films out in 2015, superior and sensitive performers who can be counted on to go at it as hard as necessary to completely inhabit their roles.
As written by Lucinda Coxon, best known for the BBC version of "The Crimson Petal and the White," "Danish Girl" is an anguished love story detailing how this couple copes with personal upheaval. It frankly takes a while to unpack its themes and gain our interest, but it finally allows us to unmistakably experience the powerful drives that motivate the action.
Einar Wegener was known as one of Denmark's best landscape painters, and "Danish Girl" begins at one of his openings, with wife and fellow artist Gerda pleased at his success yet a bit frustrated that her own work as a portraitist is not better known.
In their personal lives, Einar and Gerda start out with a typical happy movie marriage, engaging in winsome banter and an active and satisfying sex life. They even have a cute movie dog.
Then one fateful day, Gerda, who is working on a portrait of their ballet dancer friend Ulla (Amber Heard), asks Einar to put on women's stockings and ballet shoes and pretend to be Ulla to help her get a detail right.
That experience is like a light switch going on for Einar, and it's a tribute to Redmayne's ability that his performance is nowhere that abrupt. Rather, as he did in "Theory of Everything," the actor excels at gradations and shadings, showing us with infinite gradualness how Einar becomes Lili.
At first, Gerda treats Einar's interest in women's clothing as a new and fertile area for flirtation. When he expresses an interest in avoiding the annual artists ball, she encourages him to go dressed as a woman, a cousin from the provinces. There Lili attracts the attention of Henrik (Ben Whishaw), who says, not surprisingly, "You're different from most girls."
But Einar's interest in things feminine turns out to be a much deeper and profound one than anyone involved expects. When Einar recaps his artists ball experience for Gerda, he tells her, "There was a moment when I was just Lili," and moments like that soon became the rule rather than the exception.
One of the unexpected aspects of this transformation is that Gerda finally finds herself as an artist. Her numerous portraits of Lili impress a dealer in Paris, and Gerda and her husband move there and even look up Hans (the always reliable Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Einar he has never forgotten.
Though much of the acting attention in "Danish Girl" will understandably go to Redmayne, Vikander's position as the audience surrogate plus her energy and passion as Gerda, a woman facing an exceptional challenge to her love of her husband, is more than essential.
"The Danish Girl" is at its most affecting in the film's second half, when Gerda and Lili seek desperately for guidance from the medical profession and come up at first against uncomprehending dead ends. The anguish they feel, and we feel for them, is so strong it can seem at times like we're invading the couple's privacy. That's how intimate this story gets.
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'The Danish Girl'
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality and full nudity
Running time: 2 hours