The story of Danish painter Einar Wegener as she discovers she identifies as a woman, becoming one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery.

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Awards season favourite fails to live up to early promise

When we meet Einer Wegener at the beginning of The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper’s amber-coloured telling of the true story of Wegener’s pioneering sexual reassignment surgery in 1920s Denmark, he is the centre of a certain kind of attention. A painter feted for his delicate landscapes, Wegener is uncomfortable with the rapture his work inspires. We see him received as a great man at his latest exhibit, where he is backed up against a canvas by a cluster of fans. He sends a look of comic agony to his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), another painter, who stands unnoticed across the room.

Later, Einer tells Gerda he’d rather skip their next outing - he feels as though he’s playing the part of the artist-about-town, and it wears on him. As becomes clear, Einer’s problem is not with performance itself but with his assigned role. When Gerda asks him to model some silk stockings for a portrait she’s painting, something unlocks within Einer. From that point forward, he is compelled to perform the part of who he really is: a woman.

And I suppose it wouldn’t do, in a movie this lush and poised, for Lili Elbe (Wegener’s chosen name) to emerge as any old Danish girl. No: Lili - initially a joint creation of Gerda and her husband, who treat ‘Lili’ as a kind of society prank - is a sumptuous creature of auburn bob and bright persimmon lip. She dresses with tasteful extravagance and to alluring effect, as though her fine presentation is part of the point. Lili’s first question as a woman is apt: “Am I pretty enough?”

‘Redmayne’s Lili is almost more child than girl, discovering new powers in every moment.’

She is. Lili is so pretty that she attracts a suitor (Ben Whishaw) more or less instantly. Whishaw’s advances pressurise Lili’s ongoing experiment, which is presented as both intensely private and unavoidably public. The Danish Girl is careful to separate our experience of Lili’s gender transition from that of her sexuality, which recedes into the background after Einer’s initial display of a lusty, even uxorious attachment to his wife. (The real-life Gerda’s bisexuality is elided completely here.) The most aroused we see Lili is when she engages in acts of mirroring and reflection: in the former instance she checks into a peep show to study a sex worker’s moves; in the latter Lili studies her own body as though it were a foreign object, scrutinising it for some shadow of femininity and finally tucking the offending organ between her legs.

Redmayne’s translucence of skin and of expression serves his performance well. His Lili is almost more child than girl, discovering new powers in every moment. She is also willful, as Gerda discovers; what began as a prank unleashes something beyond both of their control, and in the early scenes, which describe Lili’s transition and introduction to the world, The Danish Girl has a radiant, seductive energy.

Told she has talent but no worthy subject, Gerda begins painting Lily, and suddenly her career takes off. Gerda’s dilemma is one of the richest veins in the story, but Lucinda Coxon’s script (adapted from David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel) mines it only lightly, and then effaces it almost entirely. This is a tremendous disservice to Vikander’s performance, which shines with both sensual and moral intelligence. Her Gerda disappears into Lili’s quest for sexual reassignment surgery, which dominates the last third of the film, draining its promising store of dramatic tension.

Before that happens, Matthias Schoenaerts arrives as Hans, a friend from Lili’s childhood, and perhaps her first crush. Schoenaerts, simply by way of being Schoenaerts, makes a powerful case for gender as an enigma in plain sight. Yes, he looks the part (and presumably has the part), but to look at Hans - sensitive, capable, and true - is to see something more than that sum: he is a man. Redmayne’s performance, already much praised, strives for similarly layered persuasion. Moreso than in her moments of triumph and self-certainty, it is in depicting Lili’s moments of greatest confusion that Redmayne succeeds. 

The Danish Girl is now showing in Australia.

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