Movie review: The Danish Girl

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

A sense of identity is intrinsic to what it means to be human.

But all too often our ability to express that in an authentic and meaningful way is subverted or denied, falling victim to societal demands that we behave a certain way in order to meet traditional or religious beliefs.

So much like Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) in The Danish Girl, we are forced to deny who we really are with tragic results.

On the surface, of course, with people being the chameleonic masters of disguise that they are, nothing looks untoward; so it was with Einar, a celebrated landscape painter in his native Denmark who married his art college sweetheart Gerda (Alicia Vikander) and pursued all the accepted trappings of heterosexual masculinity, all the while suppressing that he was in fact Lili Elbe and had been since his youngest days.

He had mentioned this true identity to no one of course, not even his closest childhood friend Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), all too mindful as anyone who feels “different” knows all too well, that the repercussions would not be pleasant.

As a modern society while we may speak in lofty terms of allowing people to be themselves as if it is a hallowed ideal that should be followed come what may, the reality is that difference is still viewed a little suspiciously; the effect was even more pronounced in mid-’20s Denmark where men were to be men, women to be women, and neither the twain should ever meet.

It was telling that even in the artistic community of Copenhagen where attitudes to gender and sexuality were famously more relaxed and fluid than was the case in wider society, that Wegener felt a heavy pressure to preserve the facade of his false-masculine identity.

But finally, following a session one day where he poses in ballet attire one day for Gerda who was painting a portrait of their good friend and bon vivant Ulla (Amber Heard), his true self could no longer be denied, and bit by bit and then in a rush and a storm, Lili came bursting forth and the world of the Wegeners was, understandably, never the same again.

 

 

What so powerfully defines The Danish Girl is that it doesn’t seek to represent Lili Elbe’s much-delated emergence in isolation; rather it tackles the issues of identity and its expression as a reality that, in this instance, affected both Einar and Gerda, who loved each profoundly and completely, equally.

And it goes beyond the obvious, the idea that one partner declaring their true gender identity at last would naturally disrupt (how could it not?) their relationship as a man and wife.

Instead, it sensitively and with great understanding, grants us insight into the great changes that Gerda also has to undergo as she struggles to accept, despite her best intentions to love her partner regardless of state or circumstance, Lili’s place in their relationship.

It results in a complex, nuanced story that carefully relates Einar’s journey from Lili with all the elation, uncertainty and dislocation that necessarily involves, but also Gerda’s difficult though willing transition from wife to staunch supporter and friend.

There is no attempt to present the story of these two remarkable people in a simplistically triumphant fashion where all the pieces fall easily into place; rather it is given its due, recognising that choosing to be who you really are is never an easy road even when the path ahead is clear and the decision to walk down it is unequivocally and firmly taken.

And Lili didn’t hesitate once it became clear to her that her false identity as a man was no longer even remotely an option but nor did her resolute decision to push ahead and undergo one of the first gender reassignments on record, by Kurt Warnerkros (Sebastian Koch) come without considerable cost, whether that was physically or in her relationship with Gerda.

The Danish Girl succeeds because it recognises that being true to yourself, in a society where that is a laudable ideal but in reality a tacit taboo, is never easy and comes with serious ramifications.

 

 

As anyone who has ever stood inside the fence of acceptability and pondered how they could ever scale its intimidating heights to freedom will understand, claiming your true identity, your real sense of self, is fraught in ways that many people will never understand.

But as the intensely and yet gently moving writer of The Danish Girl, Lucinda Coxon, and director Tom Hooper understand and articulates beautifully and with understanding and care, understanding that arduous climb and coming down the other side is never not an option and often has to be pursued in ways so vigorous and forthright that you risk alienating others and disrupting and losing people you care deeply about.

One of the great strengths of this film, whose every scene resembles a vivid artwork sprung to life, whether its the streetscapes of Copenhagen or the interior of the couple’s temporary Parisian apartment, thanks to cinematographer Danny Cohen, is that it doesn’t attempt to represent either Einar/Lili or Gerda as perfect people.

Lili often comes as narcissistically self-involved, oblivious to the effect she is having on her “dear Gerda” – though this is understandable in large part when you appreciate the considerable forces against which she had to fought and the length of time she had denied her true identity to great cost; she couldn’t dare yield, even a little, to going backwards again – while Gerda appears lost in a sea of emotional uncertainty, lashing out and being tender in turn.

It’s refreshing that these two people are given to us warts and all; there’s no attempt to sugarcoat them as perfect people unfalteringly following a quite then-unorthodox path in life.

Rather, it’s simple the story of one person Lili resolutely pursuing her true identity and of her partner and then close friend Gerda attempting to stand strongly behind her, and not always doing it perfectly but determined, how flawed and less-than-ideal its execution, regardless of society’s disapproval.

The great strength of The Danish Girl is that it doesn’t make too much of a histrionic or politically-correct fuss of Lili or her fight to assume her rightful place in the world; hers is a life presented simply and without bald, manipulative agenda as one like any other, albeit a gamely pioneering one, that simply asked to be allowed out to live out its time on its own terms without censure, as is anyone’s right.

 

 

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