The Danish Girl – Exquisitely Exploring the Meaning of Love

The Danish Girl – Exquisitely Exploring the Meaning of Love
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Portrait of Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener, a watercolour from 1928 courtesy Wellcome Library, London

The Danish Girl directed superbly by Tom Hooper, is based on a true story published in 1933.

The screenplay by Lucinda Coxon is based on David Ebershoff’s novel of 2001 and follows what is a heartbreaking journey for two people who love each other deeply.

Gerda Gottlieb (1886 – 1940) and Einar Wegener (1882 – 1931) were born in the provinces of Denmark, meeting at art school in Copenhagen, where in 1904 at a young age (19 and 22) they are joined in marriage.

Gerda and Einar are soul mates, drawn together by their passionate pursuit of art.

They are faced with having to transition their married relationship so that Gerda will be able to embolden her husband Einar to find his true self; the woman he believes that he is inside, Lili Elbe.

Sensitively acted, superbly photographed, aesthetically beautiful, gloriously detailed and exquisitely acted, The Danish Girl is an incredible film, poignantly exploring the true meaning of love.

Supported by a strong cast and crew our lead actors Eddie Redmayne (Einar-Lili) and Alicia Vikander (Gerda) are both enabled to shine.

Their colleagues include such luminaries as Amber Heard (Ulla), Ben Wishaw (Henrik Sander) and Matthias Schoenaerts (Hans Axgil).

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Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl

The timeline is c1910 – 1931, at a time when society as a whole is not accustomed to confronting continuing contentious issues about gender and sexuality.

Einar paints landscapes and Gerda paints portraits.

His scenes depict the austere and ethereally beautiful landscape of where he grew up and are considered quietly sensational, which is a metaphor for who he is as a man.

However hers, mostly portraits of businessmen, don’t make the cut at first to be shown and sold in the top gallery in Copenhagen that represents him.

That is until she starts to paint portraits of her husband as Lili.


Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wagener – Lili Elbe

This begins to happen after she asks him would he help her out when her friend Ulla does not turn up for her sitting for a painting of a dancer.

Anxious to help her finish it for her portfolio, Einar dons silk stockings and jewelled pumps so Gerda can complete the ‘feet’ from real life.

However she finds she cannot do that without asking him to also hold the fabulous dancer’s dress in front of him, so that she can see where the sweeping hem falls.

Ulla turns up unexpectedly and late, teasing them both when she discovers what has been happening.

She names Einar after the flowers she is carrying – lilies.

Little does Gerda know at the time, but feeling the beauty and sensuality of the silk, brings to the surface feelings Einar has been suppressing deep down inside ever since he was a child.

He later tells her this was because when he was only 10 his father discovered he and his best friend Hans Axgil kissing.

Separating them both and never allowing them to meet up again was a difficult outcome for them both.

Eddie Redmayne 1Gerda at first baffled by Einar’s reaction, becomes excited when they plot for him to come along to an ‘arts’ social event with her, one he normally avoids, although this time dressed as Lili.

She believes this is only a ‘game’, convincing herself they are only having some fun, although already we are being slowly drawn into Einar’s dilemma.

It is hard not to empathize with the very sad place he finds himself and the knowledge that he’s losing his battle to hide his real self once more.

This outing becomes a turning point for them both; she begins to lose the man she loves and he begins to hope there may be life for him as a woman after all.

Danish Girl 10This is accelerated when he is approached at the party by the handsome Henrik, who says Lili makes him feel as if he should ask permission to kiss him, which he does.

Witnessed by Gerda, their road ahead now gains higher hills for them both to climb.

Danish Girl 8At the time sexuality and its black, white or many and varied diverse shades of grey, were not issues anyone really ever talked about in polite society.

Danish Girl 1Einar and Gerda find themselves out on a limb and on a journey made more difficult and complicated by the expectations of 1920’s society.

At this time there was a general lack of understanding about the makeup of the human body and mind.

The medical profession were clinging to long held prejudices and ideas of perversion, dating back to the days of mountebanks, quacks and medicos.

Frightened by the thought of anyone being different, the doctors Einar visits either suggest unbelievably horrific treatments, or otherwise send for security and a straight jacket for anyone claiming to be having an opposite gender body experience.

Einar- Lili has to undergo and endure many indignities, as well as being beaten up by two thugs as he walks through a park.

There are literally no doctors endeavouring to present solutions, until Lili is pointed in the direction of one Dr who operates in Dresden, Germany.

Her/his paintings suddenly met morph from being dark and contemplative to being full of the warmth of the sun.

Danish Girl 5By this time Einar has just about disappeared completely and Lili is now predominant, sitting on the sofa with their little dog by her side.

The distinct markings on its face reflect the duality of Lili’s persona.

Lili is now completely out, living her new life with Gerda by her side and the added support of Hans Axgil.

Gerda has searched for his childhood friend and discovered he is Paris where they are now living, having been offered an exhibition of her paintings of Lili.

Hans we discover has been living a solitary life as a result of childhood experiences.

matthias schoenaerts 2His own journey in the world of art has been successful in terms of business, but now having both Einar and Lili plus Gerda in his life, enriches it in a way he did not believe possible.

Very quickly they both learn to lean on him for his strength.

I will admit to being a huge fan of Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays this character gently and with wonderful empathy.

In essence he has to keep them both at arms length, while keeping them close, because he wants to support them so they can complete their exploration of what constitutes real love.

Danish Girl 9Alicia Vikander brings enormous strength and beauty to her interpretation of Gerda, a working artist endeavouring to succeed in a man’s world.

She has a gentle vulnerability that surfaces at times, but then is suppressed too by the inner dynamics of the wonder woman she’s hiding inside.

Eddie Redmayne 2Eddie Redmayne is truly exceptional and to my mind should receive the Academy Award for this role. I wanted to leap to my feet and give him a standing ovation after so many brilliant scenes.

The year he spent researching Lili are revealed through the extraordinary aspects of his performance, as he unleashes the woman within himself.

He bares his body, mind and soul bravely with such quiet sensitive style for us to intimately examine.

It is very confronting. The mannerisms, the gestures and the ambivalence of his feelings are all there for us to encounter.

Danish Girl 2Lili Elbe was the first person to undergo a sex change operation. It was a very brave thing to do in an age when this landmark surgery was exceedingly dangerous.

Lili wrote in the diary she kept that she was two people in the same body fighting for supremacy.

Redmayne in an interview said he hoped the film helped improve the world for transgender people, who just want to live their own lives.

Surely that is what everyone really wants; to live and love as they choose.

For me despite its sad outcome, this was one of the most uplifting, inspiring tales of love and empowerment on film I have yet encountered during the five decades of my life as an adult.


Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

Watch the Trailer of The Danish Girl

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