It all starts out in one seemingly ordinary moment.
Prima ballerina Ulla is once again late for a sitting with portraitist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). Frustrated, Gerda asks her husband, famous landscape artist Einar (Eddie Redmayne), to sit in for their friend since she’s only working on the delicately extended foot. It opens today (Friday, Dec. 11) in the D.C. area.
Einar puts on the stockings, crams his feet into the slippers and holds the dress against himself as Gerda picks up her brushes and starts to paint. Einar slowly begins to caress the fabric as long-suppressed thoughts and emotions begin to emerge. Thus begins a remarkable journey for a devoted couple and a remarkable collaboration for a talented cinematic team.
Based on the largely forgotten true story of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, “The Danish Girl” is an exceptional film. Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech” and “Les Misérables”) coaxes powerful performances out of his top-notch cast and collaborates smoothly with his entire creative team.
The movie, set mainly in Copenhagen and Paris in the 1920 and 1930s, looks splendid. Working seamlessly with cinematographer Danny Cohen and production designer Eve Stewart, Hooper makes the most of place and period, contrasting the rigid lines of Copenhagen (and Einar’s harsh airless landscape paintings), with the color and light of Art Nouveau Paris which supports Gerda’s emergence as an artist and Lili’s emergence as a women.
The script by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel by David Ebershoff, is supple and sensitive, as eloquent when the actors are silent as when they are speaking. Several key sequences unfold wordlessly. Coxon does a marvelous job balancing contemporary sensitivities about gender with the realities of the time period. With incredible subtlety, she makes it clear that Lili is not gay man in drag or a straight man donning a costume, but a woman becoming her true self.
Redmayne’s performance is even more powerful than his Academy Award-winning portrayal of wheelchair-bound scientist Stephen Hawking, due in part to a stronger script and cast. With the support of movement choreographer Alexandra Reynolds, who also worked with him on “The Theory of Everything,” Redmayne has developed an amazingly detailed physical vocabulary that guides him from the rigid mask of masculinity that constricts Einar to the freer expression of femininity that allows Lili to flourish. Redmayne also displays an emotional vulnerability and transparency that makes Lili’s journey incredibly compelling.
Vikander’s performance as Gerda is equally stunning and multi-faceted. As the movie opens, Gerda is deeply in love with Einar, but is also somewhat jealous of his success. He has found artistic satisfaction and popular acclaim with his detailed landscapes; she is frustrated with her attempts at conventional portraiture. When she convinces Einar to pose for her dressed as a woman, it starts as a game, but it quickly turns more serious. She finds a life-long muse, but ultimately loses a husband. With her cigarette holder clenched tight, sometimes in concentration, sometimes in frustration, sometimes in flirtation, Vikander (“Ex Machina”) brings a fascinating character to incandescent light.
The supporting cast is also excellent. Amber Heard (“Magic Mike XXL”) is a delightful find in the surprisingly pivotal of Ulla. The hard-working but fun-loving ballerina serves as a godmother of sorts to the emergent Lili. Her character helps to establish the strong bond between Einar and Gerda, but she is also the first to recognize Lili in public and recommends the clinic where Lili can finally find supportive care. Heard’s light-hearted performance brings a welcome humor and humanity to the proceedings.
Matthias Schoenaerts (“Far From the Madding Crowd”) is sleek and dapper as Parisian art dealer Hans Axgil, a childhood friend of Einar’s who helps Lili and Gerda through their transitions. Out actor Ben Whishaw (“Spectre,” “Suffragette,” “In the Heart of the Sea”) is engaging as a gay bohemian who initially misunderstands Lili’s intentions, but then becomes a supportive friend and guide. Adrian Schiller is charming as the windy but well-connected art dealer Rasmussen and Sebastian Koch is warm and wise as the doctor who finally comes to Lili’s rescue.
“The Danish Girl” may well be the finest LGBT release of 2015, although the year it is not over yet. It is definitely already in contention for well-deserved recognition in the 2016 awards races. Director Tom Hooper and a talented cast and crew have cast a powerful light on a little-known piece of LGBT history, and their moving and beautiful movie makes us reflect on how we are still learning about the mysteries of the human spirit.