When Gerda Wegener asks her husband Einar to fill in as a portrait model, Einar discovers the person she’s meant to be and begins living her life as Lili Elbe. Having realized her true self and with Gerda’s love and support, Lili embarks on a groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.
In the past few years, high-profile musicians like Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace and celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner have brought public awareness to transgender issues, letting their own stories personalize a movement that too often has been kept in the shadows, mostly for fear of how the wider world would respond. As brave as these individuals have been, they at least had a history of those who had come before them, the early pioneers in gender confirmation surgery who blazed a trail.
One of those reluctant pioneers was Lili Elbe, a painter living in Copenhagen in the 1920s who underwent what was then a radical procedure to have her penis removed and a vagina constructed for her. But as The Danish Girl suggests, Lili’s desire had nothing to do with being at the forefront of a movement but, rather, a profound need to finally be herself and nullify the original body given to her. This sensitive, sometimes superb drama suffers from a bit of Oscar-bait solemnity, but on the whole it’s a touching tale of identity and love. In the process, The Danish Girl is also a poignant look at a marriage between two likeminded souls who had to let each other go.
The film begins in 1926 as Einar Wegener (Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne) has been happily married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander) for a few years. Both painters, the couple enjoys a loving, slightly kinky relationship: Einar gets a thrill wearing Gerda’s stockings and nightgowns, and when Gerda finds one of her negligees under Einar’s shirt, she gets turned on. At first, it feels merely like flirty playacting, but the more Einar enjoys dressing up as a woman, especially in public, the more Einar begins referring to this alter ego as Lili, treating the persona as if she’s a separate individual from Einar.