The Danish Girl is a profound film, reminiscent in its poignancy of Rodrigo Garcia’s Alfred Nobbs, but made more real and powerful by Eddie Redmayne’s luminous acting.
Many factors are involved in bringing characters to life on screen, but few actors come to their characters entirely from within. Gerard Depardieu manages this in Colonel Chabert and Brando in Last Tango in Paris. In a similar way, Redmayne does this seemingly without effort in his portrayal of Lily, the tragic transgender hero of Tom Hooper’s haunting, beautifully scripted film.
The Danish Girl follows with high art and clarity the tormented discovery of Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener that he has within him another self called Lili, who once awakened by his loving wife Gerda, cannot be put back into the box. Set in the 1920s, Lili’s tortuous passage to make herself whole, both within and without, is illuminated by deep empathy and compelling performances. But most importantly, it informs without being didactic.
The Danish Girl is timely because science today is challenging bigotry with facts. A narrow belief in black and white, right and wrong has long caused suffering for those whose sexual alignment falls foul of rigid absolutes. But scientific evidence points to sexual ambiguity being more than psychosocial or the work of the devil. It has its roots in variations to the chromosomal standard of XY-male and XX-female that are innate in all of us, and genetically manifest in many.
The Danish Girl draws attention to this, but almost by default. Although in real life Lili Elbe was one of the first people to undergo surgical treatment for sexual reassignment in the 20th century, Tom Hooper’s courageous film transcends science or sexual polemics because it encourages us to see beyond prejudice and fear into the mystery of what it means to be alive and human.
Jan Epstein was for many years an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office, now a freelance reviewer.