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The Subtly Persuasive Politics of The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper’s new film is an elegant construction, and it is one of the most emotion-charged and intelligently searching love stories of the past year. A portrayal of one person’s quest for authentic identity, it is every bit as much the compelling portrait of a marriage, an exceptional one but one which nevertheless speaks in profoundly universal terms. It can leave one with a sense of something not frequently evoked in contemporary films—catharsis. For though The Danish Girl haunts with an unsparing sadness, it is also an unsparingly beautiful work of art.

Some critics and viewers, perhaps expecting something rawer or more political, have found the film tasteful and reserved to a fault. Without presuming to patronize or condescend I can’t help but wonder if that perspective isn’t perhaps colored by preconceived notions of what place the film should assume in our cultural conversation about transgender identity and issues. I would argue that the film requires only that we bring to it an openness, and that if we do it can take us along with the characters on a journey of discovery. Hooper’s direction is limpid, quietly rhapsodic. It is also a deeply moving study in subtlety of tone and delicacy of balance—there is a mesmerizing conflation of aesthetic and dramatic tensions in the film: the classical storytelling and sumptuous production values pulse with the urgency of Eddie Redmayne’s and Alicia Vikander’s memorable performances.

It was Hooper who just barely wrestled the galumphing Les Miserables to an honorable onscreen draw, did a fine job with HBO’s “John Adams”, and won an Oscar for his adroit actor-centric The King’s Speech in 2010. Here he directs a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same title, The Danish Girl, a fictionalized biography of Lili Elbe (as successful Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener came to be known), one of the first people to attempt sex reassignment surgery. Lili’s encounters with prevailing medical wisdom and her bravery makes this film a tribute to a heroic forerunner of the current movement for transgender rights. Given that there was scarcely even a vocabulary (either technical or, much less, psychological) for questions of gender identity at the time—the film is set largely in Copenhagen between 1926 and 1931—it’s impossible not to be moved by Lili’s baffled but determined quest for self-recognition and by her need to be recognized by those who care about her, most crucially and world-changingly his beloved and loving portrait-painter wife of six years, Gerda.

In the early days of Einar’s transformation, Redmayne conveys the degree to which gender is, for all of us, a skill acquired through observation and imitation. Observing a pretty girl through the glass at a Paris peep show, Einar longs not to possess her but to be her, and the reverberating moment of recognition they share when she sees him emulating her gestures makes for one of the movie’s most eidetic scenes. Another (also wordless) occurs long after Einar has begun to allow Lili freer rein, dressing almost always in female attire, using make-up, wearing a wig, growing-out his hair. In one last attempt at regaining Einar—if only to signal a symbolic embodiment of his great love for Gerda—the camera approaches Redmayne sitting on a sofa waiting for her to come home. Though he has dressed in pants, shirt, and jacket, his attitude and posture evince one of his most wholly feminine moments in the film. A legitimate criticism may be made that Lili’s characterization stalls ever so slightly in the denouement—we want more—but that is a weakness in the screenplay, not in Redmayne’s interpretation. Throughout the course of Einar’s making way for Lili, it is a daring performance shrewdly built of shifting nuances—without an overreliance on bravura technique and in its patience and vulnerability, the actor’s transformation is revelatory.

But The Danish Girl does not belong solely to Redmayne. As Gerda, whose unconditional love provides an essential context for Lili’s birth, Alicia Vikander is the soul of the film, and she deservedly won this year’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance. It is a bracingly vibrant and truthful performance. Early in the film Einar muses that, "Marriage creates someone else, more than just the two of you." Vikander makes Gerda a fiercely independent artist and a human being with the courage to be fiercely brave and constant. She refuses to let love die, to let the “more” that has been created be completely lost—even when her husband discovers that he must become a woman. After harrowing encounters with various doctors and psychiatrists of the day, Lili reports, accompanied by Gerda, for a last-chance appointment at a women’s clinic to see a physician who may perform the pioneering and still hush-hush surgery. With now fatigued determination and a slightly awkward falter, Lili tells the assistant at the desk, “I believe that I am a woman—inside.” Only a second elapses before Gerda speaks up, holding back tears and with force that surprises even herself, “And I believe it, too.” Vikander is a beautiful woman, and even more she is an eminently generous, open, and commanding screen actor. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in this role and difficult to imagine the film becoming what it is without her.

Danny Cohen’s cinematography, Eve Stewart’s production design, and the art direction by Grant Armstrong are exquisite. Alternating with the stark landscapes of coastal salt marshes and spellbinding calligraphies of bare winter trees against opalescent northern skies that evoke Wegener’s work, many of the Copenhagen interiors—art nouveau, jugendstil, and art deco—are modelled with fidelity on the paintings of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi. The very able supporting cast includes Sebastian Koch as the compassionate surgeon who eventually performs Lili’s surgery, and Matthias Schoenarts as a gallery owner and former childhood friend of Einar’s who persists in offering Gerda support even when she feels unable to accept it.

It probably shouldn’t surprise that there are sharply varying responses to The Danish Girl. The film arrives at the end of a year in which a president of the United States for the first time mentioned transgender people in his State of The Union address; the nation confirmed a timetable for transgender soldiers to serve openly in the military; award-winning TV shows “Transparent” and “Orange Is The New Black” evoked groundbreaking conversations about transgender activism; and reality star Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair (and elsewhere with Kardashianesque ubiquity) sparking a remarkably fine-pointed debate as to whether designer clothes make the woman and what should constitute the most salient concerns of transgenderism.

Those who express disappointment that in terms of trans activism the film is only a baby step, or somehow not “real” enough, may or may not be right in terms of pure politics, but human frontiers have always been most effectively reached by multiple approaches—along with polemics, satire is necessary, as is personal persuasion. And, always, art. Hooper’s film is likely to score some significant and substantive points. By framing the search for authentic identity with the universal markers of a tender and compelling love story to guide the way—and relating it in a classical style, with aesthetic integrity and name actors in a bankable wide-release project—The Danish Girl will undoubtedly move more people, heretofore untouched, to consider and begin to understand the complexities of transgender experience.

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