Both struggling artists, couple Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) are trying to make it big in Copenhagen’s 1920’s art scene. When one of her models does not show up for her painting session, she asks him to fill in for her by posing in her costume. The little experiment awakens something inside him, a feminine side which he knows has always been there. Given his aversion towards parties, she suggests that he accompany her one time not as her husband, but rather as his “cousin” Lili from Velje. For fun. But what starts as simple cross dressing escalates to something more she has never expected, the emergence of a dominant female persona undermining her husband’s male personality. Soon enough, her portraits of Lili begin to receive fame and attention, much to the benefit of her career. It does not take long, however, before the resurfacing identity that he has suppressed for so long affects the dynamics of their marriage.
To be totally honest, there are many boring parts in this film, and it somehow drags along, making it a bit difficult to watch. The real gem here is the acting which makes everything else tolerable. The rapport between Redmayne and Vikander is just so strong that you need not a lot of convincing that their characters do share something special. They do not really have to exert that much effort to convey their emotions onscreen, as their facial expressions alone already suffice to show the grief and admiration that they have for each other.
If Redmayne did not win the Oscar a year prior, he could have done so for this film given his brilliant performance. Or maybe not, because of Leo. He looks like Jessica Chastain when he appears as Lili Elbe, the resemblance is so eerie! His struggle is just so poignant to witness, and really beautiful to watch. You know that an actor’s talent is legit when he can convince you that he is a woman and not come off as a drag queen trying too hard. He is not just Einar here, he is also Lili. That Oscar nomination is well-deserved.
As for Vikander, she does offer a heart-wrenching portrayal of a woman’s unconditional love for her husband, even going to great lengths to support him in his happiness, even when that means the end of hers. This might sound like an unpopular opinion, but I liked her performance in Ex-Machina way better. This does not mean to say that her role as Gerda is inferior acting-wise, both are actually of the same caliber. Perhaps I am just a little biased, but maybe the best way to look at her Oscar win is that of a cumulative achievement for those two roles. This woman has a bright acting career waiting for her.
The film is a little controversial not just because of the issue tackled, but also due to many inconsistencies between the source material and the finished product. Artistic license reigns supreme here, from geographical inaccuracies to tweaked personalities so as to make the movie more palatable to a broader audience. If you do some research regarding the real life personalities involved, you would realize that the end product intentionally neglects some important aspects of their life for the pursuit of cinematic excellence. But then again, this is simply inevitable when you are dealing with such true to life accounts. This is not a documentary, after all.
For all its flaws, The Danish Girl still manages to stir emotions, as well as give us a peek of the early stages of the LGBT cause in modern day society. It reminds us that the struggle has been real for decades, and that it has come a long way since then. In the end, Lili Elbe’s fight for her place in society as the real her is a symbolic manifestation of the call not just for tolerance, but also acceptance in the world that we all live in.