THE VISIONARY COURAGE OF A TRANSGENDER PIONEER ("THE DANISH GIRL")
[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/dec/29/transitioning-lili/]
I expect that most people will approach "The Danish Girl," as I did, with interest in learning a bit about the transgender pioneer who is its subject: Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. This fictionalized retelling, based on a novel of the same name, introduces Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), as happily married bohemian painters in Copenhagen in the 1920s, and follows their journey through Lili's awakening identity, culminating in the surgeries. The film works well as historical exploration, placing you in a time, less than 100 years ago, when there was no concept of transgender identity. And as you might expect from his other fine work as an actor (including playing Stephen Hawkings in last year's inferior "A Brief History of Time") and his androgynous beauty, Redmayne believably depicts Einar's physical transformation. Redmayne and the luminous Vikander have already begun to garner well-deserved award recognition.
But "The Danish Girl" succeeds best in conveying, with patience and care, a lived-in sense of a rare but essential human experience: that of undergoing, inside one lifetime, a transformation for which there is no roadmap and which encompasses an evolution in thinking that will take the rest of the world several successive generations. Not to minimize the obviously dramatic story of submitting to gender reassignment surgery when it was so untried -- let alone doing so now, 85 years later -- but these fine actors, screenwriter Lucinda Coxon, and director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") have managed to capture something important about the soul and the evolution of human consciousness. On lives such of these, our progress as a species depends.
In the film's early scenes, Einar and Gerda enjoy a playful and connected marriage. They share an artistic vocation -- he is a celebrated landscape painter and she has achieved more limited success painting portraits. Small signs of what we would now term Einar's "genderqueerness" go unnoticed by both -- until one day, while waiting for a portrait model to arrive, Gerda enlists Einar to pose in hose and a ballet dress. We see the subtle flickers of longing and recognition on Einar's face as he dons these garments and assumes a pose he identifies as female.
Gerda is unfazed when she later finds that Einar has commandeered one of her dressing gowns to wear under his clothes. She even encourages him to attend a public event disguised as a woman, for a lark, but Redmayne captures the subtle but insistent shifts in Einar's thinking; we see how he is more and more compelled to follow where this journey takes him -- until, soon, Gerda finds that it harder and harder to access the husband she loves.
The film lingers longer than most would dare with the shifts in Einar's perspective, and with Gerda's confusion, love, and loss. Director Hooper has the courage to push us to sit with the magnitude of what they experienced, at a time when there was no concept of transgender identity for either Einar or Gerda to grab onto. How does one manage when compelled toward inward truth for which there is no outward confirmation? We journey through visits to doctors who prescribe painful radiation treatment and diagnose insanity. With no one to offer Einar a way to process or analyze the truth that compels him, he forges ahead, transitioning into Lili before transitioning was a concept. Indeed, with no signposts to guide her, Lili tumbles to the conclusion -- which now seems heartbreakingly brutal and unnecessary -- that Einar must die in order for Lili to live.
A lesser film would have relied more on exposition to explain what is happening; this one admirably shows more than it tells. Redmayne conveys how Lili's fear competes with her excitement as she flirts with a man whose attention she has attracted, and then retreats; her schemes for studying how women shift their weight or ask a question; the small ways in which transitioning to female requires Einar to give up power. In a particularly affecting scene, we see in Redmayne's body and face how acutely it pains Lili to take off her wig, revealing Einar underneath. She has no access to a means for reconciling Einar as part of Lili, and her distaste for Einar becomes increasingly palpable.
The toll on Einar/Lili's relationship with Gerda is also thoughtfully portrayed. Einar is blessed with a spouse who genuinely loves him and is capable of making much of the journey with and for Lili. Indeed, Lili becomes a regular subject of Gerda's portraiture, earning Gerda professional notice and subtly assisting in Lili's transition. It makes sense that both of them were artists; only highly intuitive people could find a way to venture into and make sense of such complex psychological territory. Yet, increasingly, Gerda finds herself losing her formerly attentive partner, even at times finding herself rather cruelly abandoned. All of Lili's energies are absorbed in the task of becoming herself; her very idea of womanhood in 1920s Europe contains little room for Gerda.
No matter how much this portrayal may veer from the historical record about Einar/Lili and Gerda, it is profoundly true in the deepest sense. This film is a worthy window into early identity formation for a transgender woman -- indeed, Lili Elbe's journal eventually became important in that regard. But it is also resonates with wisdom and empathy for those important few whose lives call them to the lonely and confusing work of scouting ahead for where the rest of us must and will eventually evolve.