Eddie Redmayne follows up his Oscar-winning performance as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” with another tour-de-force as Lili Wegener, an early transgender pioneer in Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl.”
In moving from a vigorous, outgoing male living in the art community of Copenhagen circa 1926 to perplexing sexual identity confusion and then to being among the first to undergo radical male-to-female “gender confirmation” surgery, Redmayne demonstrates why he has become such an unusual star, able to shed his own persona to go undercover into the lives of people facing extreme physical and emotional challenges.
His is a devastatingly subtle, precise, beautifully rendered transition in “The Danish Girl” that gently takes a viewer through all three stages of Lily’s development without histrionics or overemphasis. What makes the performance even more powerful though is its female counterpoint.
Much as Redmayne’s Hawking was balanced by Felicity Jones’ portrayal of his wife Jane, so Alicia Vikander gives ballast to his Einar-becoming-Lili in playing Wegener’s loyal, loving yet confused wife Gerda.
Vikander (“Ex Machina”) makes a potentially wane role vibrant, first with her enthusiastic sexuality and then a heartfelt yearning to remain on her husband’s side even as he must destroy the male identity that initially attracted her so.
As Lili comes more and more to light, pushing Einar into the darkness of non-existence, Gerda remains her confidante and closest friend, even though in the years between the Great Wars this was completely uncharted waters.
Hooper has thrown off the sluggish literalism that afflicted “Les Misérables” for a painterly approach here, framing this story of two artists with a skillful play of spatial relationships of streets, interiors, people and objects so that parallel lines of buildings or corridors often converge in the distance and the color palette changes from cool to warm during Lili’s journey.
Clothes too matter. As a man, Lili dresses formerly, even in the art studio, and little color intrudes. As a woman, her clothes move into Art Nouveau with a daring wig and scarves and accessories that bring a riot of color to her wardrobe.
The story itself is told with conventional BBC correctness, a straightforward biopic that aims for the art-house mainstream, assuming there is such a thing. Transgender characters are popping up everywhere these days but the movie acts as if little of this has come to the attention of its presumed audience.
In the story, adapted from David Ebershoff’s 2000 debut novel by Lucinda Coxon, the Wegeners are living as painters, six years into a strong marriage. Einar is an established, in-demand landscape painter while Gerda, less known, is having little success with her ordinary portraits of Danish burghers.
Then in a spur-of-the-moment request by Gerda for her husband to fill in for an absent model by going semi-drag, Einer discovers Lili. Not that there hasn’t been a little foreshadowing, as earlier Redmayne runs his hands over women’s furs and coats on a wardrobe rack at the ballet. But as he dons stockings and ballet slippers, the sensation of female clothes against his skin comes as a shock.
For her part Gerda finds inspiration in painting Lili. She even coaxes Einer into attending a society ball as Lili, introducing her to makeup and a wig. What she doesn’t bargain for is the amorous attention Lili receives from an ardent Henrik (Ben Whishaw), who may or may not recognize who this “cousin” actually might be.
The couple moves to Paris, initially taken there by Gerda’s suddenly blossoming career but they also wish to live a freer, more open society than in their homeland.
Her husband’s boyhood friend and first crush, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a wealthy art dealer, becomes part of an increasingly strange ménage-à-trois with him comforting Gerda during this confusing time (and hoping for more intimacy) but, increasingly aware who this Lili is, offering to find whatever medical help the couple needs.
Of course, the psychiatric profession of that era has no understanding or ability to cope with a transgender person. Either deemed “crazy” or given quack remedies, Lili finds her only hope in a German doctor (Sebastian Koch), willing to perform risky and revolutionary surgery.
Curiously, after transitioning to Lili Elbe, she stops painting as if that artistry belonged to her rejected male side.
The novel and now movie is a more romantic version of the real life Lili Elbe and Gerda Gottlieb. Some literary license has been taken in telling a rather complex story.
Gerda’s first Lili paintings, for instance, date 13 years before the movie has Lili experiment with cross dressing. Gerda may herself have been gay for that matter.
Nevertheless the transgender lifestyle and surgeries certainly make Lili a pioneer and a little romance never hurts a movie like this in gaining an audience and helping people to better understand the issue.
Elbe did manage to get her gender and name officially changed including a passport as Lili Ilse Elvenes. And she did stop painting after that point.
“The Danish Girl” is lovely to behold and its two lead performances undoubtedly brilliant. It can take no bows for anything remotely daring at this point with “Transparent” nominated for Emmys and Caitlyn Jenner adorning magazine covers.
Yet the movie does bring back to public recognition one of the first persons of the 20th century living a transgender life to receive sex reassignment surgery.
Opens: November 27, 2015 Los Angeles, New York (Focus Features)
Production companies: Working Title Films, Pretty Pictures in association with ReVision Pictures, Senator Global Productions
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriter: Lucinda Coxon
Based on the novel by: David Ebershoff
Producers: Gail Mutrux, Anne Harrison, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tom Hooper
Executive producers: Linda Reisman, Ulf Israel, Kathy Morgan, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Eve Stewart
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Editor: Melanie Ann Oliver
R rating, 120 minutes