By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — As much the portrait of a marriage of soulmates as it is an account of a transgender transformation, The Danish Girl is also a showcase for two brilliant performances.
It’s the slightly fictionalized telling of a story about one Lili Elbe, who, with a wife’s crucial support, in 1930 underwent the first documented account of gender-reassignment surgery to transition into a woman and for the first time live a fully authentic life.
She was, that is, an iconic pioneer whose story of nearly a century ago — long before television’s Transparent or Orange is the New Black and long before Caitlyn Jenner. Right now is, after all, a point in the transgender movement when audiences are much more acquainted with the phenomenon.
Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar for Best Actor last year for his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, portrays Lili in another amazingly transformative turn, while Alicia Vikander, the Swedish actress who seems ubiquitous of late and made such an impactful impression in Ex Machina, plays his spouse.
Two performances this sensational – one a sensitive blossoming, the other a struggle with compassionate selflessness — in the same film is a rarity, to say the least.
Redmayne starts out as artist Einar Wegener, a landscape painter in Copenhagen in 1926, whose wife, Gerta Wegener, is also a painter.
When his wife asks him to sit in for her female ballerina model one day by wearing stockings, heels, and a dress, he makes a startling discovery about his true nature and gender: with feelings that he has repressed since childhood suddenly surfacing, he realizes that he is essentially a woman trapped in a man’s body.
“When I dream,” he says, somewhat later, “they’re Lili’s dreams.”
And as time goes on, he’s less and less Einar and more and more Lili.
“You helped bring Lili to life,” Einar tells Gerta, “but she was always there.”
So at gatherings Lili presents herself as Gerta’s ginger-haired cousin.
As for the devoted and unconditionally loving Gerta, she remains in Lili’s corner despite knowing that, as the gradual process proceeds deeper into uncharted territory, their relationship can never be the same: the more Lili emerges, the less Gerta’s husband exists.
Director Tom Hooper, coming off two successive Best Picture Academy Award nominees, The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, with an Oscar for the former and Redmayne in the latter, takes what might be seen as too restrained an approach, which explains why the film does not ultimately land the emotional punch we expect it to with acting of this caliber.
But given the subject matter and the need for open-minded acceptance of it on the part of the wide audience, perhaps this is an understandable necessity.
The sensitive script, adapted by Lucinda Coxon from the historical 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff, certainly takes advantage of the consummate acting skill on display but, as storytelling blueprints go, it is admittedly more admirable than lovable.
Still, look for both exquisite and beautifully calibrated central performances to be aptly recognized with nominations at Oscar time.
So we’ll paint 3 stars out of 4 for the delicate and empathetic drama about the nature of identity as well as a touching love story, The Danish Girl, the title of which, appropriately enough, refers not to one character but to two.