I think I nearly cried. Twice. Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery, bewitched me from the first moment to the last. Based on the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff and loosely on the real lives of painters Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, this moving slice-of-life depiction of Lili’s transition – mental and physical – swept me along with its deep currents of feeling without ever making me feel preached to.
I’ll confess that prior to going to the cinema, the choice for me was a toss up between this and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Having only seen one Star Wars film before now (don’t all rush in yelling at once), you could say the choice was between social expectation and the film that was truer to my heart. And, like Lili (although in far less a serious manner), I ultimately let my true self win and felt truly satisfied in embracing my preferences.
Appropriately for a film about painters, the film is very visually satisfying, whether it be the paintings themselves, the costumes of the characters, or the way key expressions and touches are given space to shine. All clues at the beginning are very obvious even for those who had somehow missed any trailers or summaries, and the focus is far more about the journey of Lili’s gender than the actual surgery – indeed, coming right towards the end of the film, the surgery is a conclusion to a conflict more than anything else.
I can see how there might be objections to Lili not being acted by a trans actor, or how there might be a sigh of ‘another LGBTQ+ involving film where the conflict is about being L/G/B/T/Q/+’. To the first I can only say that I found Redmayne’s acting completely convincing and compelling, and how a step towards greater visibility must still be a step in the right direction, and to the second – well, I profoundly do not care. Other stories can and will and should not center on its LGBTQ+ness for conflict, but that this one did is not to be held against it. The relationship between Einar/Lili and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) did not feel forced, either on the conflict or the support side of things, and rather seemed to grow from a natural relationship between the characters. This cannot quite be said of Lili’s relationships with Henrik (Ben Whishaw) and Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), which have a touch more of the ‘drama’ feel to them, but not so much so that I felt detached from the real emotions of the characters. In particular, the Lili-Henrik dynamic serves to illustrate the separation between gender identiy and sexuality.
Without spoiling anything, I have mixed feelings regarding the ending. Overall, I feel that the film ended beyond where it would have done best to, and the rest could have been summarized along with the usual white-text-on-black-screen before the credits. I cannot argue why I feel that way without getting into the details of those spoilers, but I can say that even though I wouldn’t have chosen them they don’t -heh- spoil the film.
The Danish Girl is a film that has to struggle with a unique and common adaptation issue – depicting a very central inner struggle with only outward clues to show it (it uses no narration). And I have to say that very much by and large it succeeds.
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