The movie is based on the true story found in David Ebershoff’s book of the same name, which in turn is based on the diaries Einar kept of his experiences.
Visually, the film is achingly beautiful; from the magnificent skies and dramatic shafts of light of the Scandinavian landscape, which appear as if straight out of one of Einar's paintings. Just as lovely, is the resilient tenderness of a love which expands to even greater intimacy as Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) move painfully together towards Einar's transformation to Lili Elbe.
Realisation of his preferred gender, for Einar, came by chance. Though he later says Lili was always there inside him, Gerda was the one who helped him to acknowledge her. It started as a bit of fun; one morning, Gerda asks her husband to fill in for a life model for her portrait of a dancer and Einar pulls on a pair of tights and ballet slippers. Gerda finds it exciting and together they plan with girlish glee to attend a society ball with Einar dressed as a woman.
Gerda coaches Einar in walking, dressing, applying make-up and the subtle art of flirting as a woman. The result is Lili; so convincing that she is chatted up and kissed by a man on this her first outing! But as the game progresses, Einar fully becomes Lili and is unable to give up her persona. Ironically as their marriage and physical relationship deteriorates, their love deepens.
Gerda's paintings of Einar as Lili become much sought after and bring her European-wide acclaim, and a childhood friend of Einar's, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), the first man he ever kissed, becomes a rock solid support to them both. But neither are happy. Gerda pleads in vain to Einar: 'I need to talk to my husband. Please get him back. Can you at least try?' But it is not possible.
Desperate and like many people today, though with fewer humane options, they explore medical solutions as an alternative to the prevailing diagnosis that Einar is insane. We experience with them the agonies and futility of finding public validity for a man in the 1920s living in Europe who feels he is a woman. Einar endures radioactivity treatment while bound by restraints, escapes the threat of commitment to a mental institution by climbing out of a window and is a victim of a brutal beating on the street, for simply 'being different.'
Truly evocative, subtlety giving suffering a sensuality of its own, juxtapositioned mirrors echo Lili's growing awareness of her femininity as he explores mannerisms, styles and even the erotic possibilities of the female form. He takes to wearing Gerda's nightdress in bed because he says he will have sweet dreams. Their growing physical distance but deepening love between the couple is eloquently shown by the way in which they touch hands between a netting which divides their marital bed; they are aruably closer at this time that ever before.
Gerda's love for Einar is so strong that when he, dressed as a woman facing their final doctor, says quietly: 'I believe I am a woman,' Gerda also turns to the doctor and says 'I believe it too.' Their dogged combined strength is what this film is primarily about, and the performances of both Redmayne and Vikander are impressive. Redmayne won both a Bafta and an Oscar last year for his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and looks set to have another good chance of both for his portrayal of Lili this year.
Vikander's is also a strong lead role, following performances in Ex Machina, Testament of Youth and The Man From UNCLE. With her compelling performance as Gerda in The Danish Girl she should also do well in this year's awards.
The Danish Girl opened in a year that put trans gender issues firmly in the spotlight. From the very public transition of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner, to the Emmy-winning success of Amazon's series Transparent, even the White House chose to screen The Danish Girl as part of a celebration of LGBT artists. It is telling that the script was passed around for about 12 years before securing financial backing because of what was seen as the story's limited appeal. 'I hope it provides a message of hope,' says the director Tom Hooper. 'It's a message that trans gender history matters. These (Einar and Gerda) were two extraordinary pioneers of the trans gender movement who I think history has marginalised.'
The Danish Girl is now showing at FACT. Click here to book tickets.