The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe and Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener, offers an emotional and inspiring depiction of a trans woman's struggle to claim her identity in the early 20th century.
The film follows the real-life story of Lili Elbe, a trans artist and one of the first people in the world to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Born Einar Wegener in Denmark in 1882, she became a successful landscape painter under this name.
When studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, she met Gerda Gottlieb, who she married in 1904. Gerda was also a very successful artist, in part as a result of her paintings and illustrations of Lili.
The Danish Girl picks up the story with the pair already married, and very close. It is Gerda who asks her husband (at this point, called Einar), to wear stockings and women's shoes and sit for a painting. This first tentative exploration of women's clothes triggers the beginning of a great transformation, where Einar, with increasing frequency, presents as Lili. She goes to parties as Lili, and hosts people in her home as Lili – introducing herself as Einar's cousin.
The film sensitively weaves together both the pleasure and pain of the process of the transition, first and foremost through some very intimate scenes with Redmayne depicting Lili's difficult relationship with her body.
In The Danish Girl, Vikander's Gerda is very strong, and so deeply in love with her partner that despite her own, growing unhappiness she is prepared to support Lili through her transition. Importantly, when doctors declare Lili either a homosexual man or insane, Gerda ultimately believes Lili when she says that she is in fact a woman, trapped in a man's body.
The development of their relationship is incredibly moving to watch. While their marriage ends up breaking on the shoals of Lili's transition and her choice to discard everything that was “Einar's”, including both his painting career and marriage, they continue to trust each deeply.
The Danish Girl does make some changes to Gerda's character, however. She is a tragic figure in the film. She is portrayed as a heterosexual woman, who loses her husband when he transitions. In reality though, rather than their marriage immediately cracking under pressure, Lili and Gerda remained in a relationship for many years following her transition. Many historical sources also suggest that Gerda was bisexual.
The choice to strip Gerda of these aspects of her character could have been made in order to focus on the heroine of the film, Lili, and her struggle. In any case, Gerda is a fascinating and inspiring figure too, whose compassion adds a lot of depth to the story of The Danish Girl.
Lili becomes one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, which involved a number of dangerous operations over the course of two years. The final of these led to her death, as a result of post-operative complications, shortly before her 50th birthday.
The Danish Girl is a very moving portrayal of a subject that is very obviously still relevant today. Many are applauding Redmayne's performance, while others are criticising the film for casting a cisgender actor to play a trans character.
Lili Elbe is an awe-inspiring, real-life hero to many trans people, propelled to greater fame by The Danish Girl. This film is absolutely worth going to see.