Alicia Vikander is, which tells you a little something about the point of view taken in Tom Hooper’s pseudo-biopic, a film whose title would appear to be a nickname for Redmayne’s transgender pioneer Lili Elbe. Midway through, a childhood friend refers to Lili’s ex-wife and best friend Gerda as “this Danish girl,” emphasizing the point for anyone not yet up to speed. While Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon never skirt around the story of Europe’s first sex reassignment surgery, the audience comes to understand Gerda’s hardships more than they do Lili’s psyche, a certain blow to anyone hoping to better grasp the intricacies of this misunderstood minority.
Such underpinnings aren’t completely ignored, however, as Lili is without a doubt the focal point of the plot, a transgender person who has found it increasingly difficult to maintain her birth identity, the respected painter Einar Wegener. Gerda is a painter herself, less established but no less talented, struggling to get noticed and wondering if it’s her work or her womanhood that’s preventing her from breaking into an elitist, male-dominated arena like the art world in 1929 Copenhagen. When a subject doesn’t show, she asks her then-husband to model the dress and stockings she had prepared for the portrait, a decision that unmasks Einar’s true self and ultimately leads to her progressive transformation over the course of the film.
Forgoing his penchant for extreme close-ups, Hooper steps back and allows the actors to breathe, and “The Danish Girl” is nothing if not a stupendous showcase for the abilities of Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. In a less competitive year (and perhaps if Redmayne had not stolen Michael Keaton’s statue last year), they’d be a shoo-in for the Oscar in their respective categories. Vikander announces herself as a force to be reckoned with, adeptly navigating Gerda’s own transition from distraught, confused wife to independent, supportive friend. Her love for her former husband, regardless of gender, forces her to let go of the life they built and help Lili in finding the answer to this unusual predicament. As Hans, the aforementioned childhood friend, Matthias Schoenaerts proves himself a chameleon, able to convey both the character’s genuine concern for Lili and his romantic interest in Gerda, sometimes in the same scene. Amber Heard and Ben Wishaw perform adequately as temporary acquaintances, the former a hyperactive ball partner of Gerda’s and the latter Einar’s initial flirtation with men.
In regards to Lili’s sexual identity, her orientation is perhaps the least explored part of it all. It’s apparent early on that she’s legitimately attracted to Gerda, physically and otherwise, but once the mask comes off the physical attraction is gone, like a light switch. Lili is suddenly no longer sexually interested in Gerda, and even if this may be true to reality, the change is too abrupt and too unexplained for the uninitiated. Redmayne’s transformation and Vikander’s emotional maturity carry the movie when the script occasionally fails them. Though more psychological nuance would have been welcome, “The Danish Girl” is a sensitive look at the transgender experience through the eyes of Lili Elbe, and especially Gerda Wegener, a woman who loved, lost, and helped that love make history.