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'Danish Girl' Follows Pioneering Transgender Woman's Choice for Authentic Life

  • Penelope Poulou

The Danish Girl, by Oscar-winning filmmaker Tom Hooper, tells the real-life story of artist Einar Wegener, the first person known to undergo sex reassignment.

Set in Copenhagen in the early 20th century, the film focuses on Einar and his wife, Gerda, a portraitist, and how their relationship is tested when he realizes he's a woman trapped in a man's body. Initially, it seems as if nothing could cloud the love between the bohemian couple, until Einar agrees to pose as a woman for his wife, and uncovers his long-repressed femininity.

At first, Gerda thinks Einar is being an eccentric. She admires his effortless feminine grace, and inspired by it, she starts painting Einer's new persona, Lili. Lili's portraits meet critical acclaim and Gerda encourages what she considers Einar's new "fad." She even initiates the idea of the two of them attending a ball as women rather than as a couple.

But when a man kisses Lili at the ball, the seemingly innocent prank becomes an existential crisis for Einar. For Gerda, who witnesses the scene, it is a shock, and a journey into uncharted territory.

FILE - From left, Eddie Redmayne, Amber Heard, Alicia Vikander and Tom Hooper arrive at the premiere of "The Danish Girl" at Regency Village Theatre, Nov. 21, 2015, in Los Angeles, California.

FILE - From left, Eddie Redmayne, Amber Heard, Alicia Vikander and Tom Hooper arrive at the premiere of "The Danish Girl" at Regency Village Theatre, Nov. 21, 2015, in Los Angeles, California.

Eventually, Einar fades into Lili and the heartbroken Gerda loses her husband. The story then shifts from the romantic symbiosis of a passionate couple into the love story of two individuals, undergoing their own private journeys, and culminating with Lili's reassignment sex surgery.

Eddie Redmayne gives what could be an Oscar-worthy performance as Lili.

"One of the extraordinary things about this story for me is the profundity of love," he said. "What an extraordinary thing it can be, how it is not defined by gender, by sexuality, by race, by religion, by anything. It's something other. It's about the soul."

Redmayne, who won the Oscar last year for tracing Stephen Hawking's physical deterioration due to the degenerative disease ALS, transforms Einar into Lili equally deftly. The metamorphosis is so complete and seamless that the viewer realizes Lili was always present, just hidden under Einar's persona. Though very demanding, Redmayne says Lili's character meant a lot to him.

"In an age in which there were no predecessors, there were no transgender women that she was aware of, she had the bravery and the courage to pursue living a life authentic," Redmayne said.

The Danish Girl, an open-ended title that could refer to either Lili or Gerda, both from Denmark, has received acclaim for its elegant cinematography and superb acting. However criticism that Einar's transformation into Lili was too abrupt and shallow could cost the actor the golden statuette, through no fault of his own but rather due to script shortcomings.

Still, Einar's subtle transformation through hand gestures, a slight tilt of the head or a fleeting glint on the eye tell the deeper story and reveal Einar's inner workings as he crosses into Lili, leaving the rest to the viewer's imagination and speculation.

Rising star Alicia Vikander is equally remarkable inhabiting Gerda, a free spirit, a young artist who, while in love with Einar, accepts Lili's emergence and supports her despite the heartbreak she endures. Hers is the greater love. Vikander expresses feelings and heartache louder than Redmayne. More earthy and willful than her companion, she appears the masculine force. The duo's dynamic relationship is reminiscent of another couple conjured by Hooper onto the large screen, that of the Queen mother supporting stuttering King George as he prepares to address the nation during WWII, in the 2010 multiple Oscar winning picture The King's Speech.

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