‘The Danish Girl’ is a frilly delight without real substance

“The Danish Girl” is a beautiful, artistic fairytale version of a true story: How Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener became Lili Elbe. Lili Elbe was one of the first recipients of sexual reassignment surgery and her determination to live, love and have children as a woman ultimately led to her death.


That might be gory stuff or ripe for high camp. Lili Elbe lived between 1882 to 1931. As Einar, he was an illustrator who met Gerda Gottlieb at the Royal Danish Academy on Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He was 21 and she was 19 when they married in 1904.

In the movie, “The Danish Girl,” Eddie Redmayne is cultured and curious. The screenplay by Lucinda Coxon is based on David Ebershoff’s book, “The Danish Girl.” The movie doesn’t begin with how the lovely couple meet, but plunges us into the well-cultured, upscale atmosphere of Copenhagen post World War I. The couple seem like newlyweds, still enraptured with each other and struggling to make a living. Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) is waiting for a model, but time is money and she asks her husband Einar (Eddie Redmayne) to stand in.

Director Tom Hooper allows the camera to linger a bit too long as Einar finds the shoes and stockings surprisingly pleasing. He holds up the dress and feels the sensual pleasure. From there the sensual becomes the sexual. Einar tries on some of Gerda’s clothes and Gerda is not too displeased with their sexual play thereafter. Things progress rapidly. She even brings Einar dressed up as a woman, telling everyone at a posh party that this woman is her cousin Lili. Lili does capture the attention of some men, including a particularly ardent Henrik (Ben Whishaw). Lili seems coy, but it is Einar suffering from a bit of shock, when Lili flees Henrik’s embrace. After all, he is a married man or woman. That does, eventually become a sticky point.

Gerda’s full embrace of Lili is helped by sudden interest in her work that uses the face of Lili with a woman’s body. In Paris, they keep company with Einar’s old friend Hans (Mathias Schoenearts), an art dealer. Einar has taken more and more to appearing in public as Lili. Einar is determined to become Lili in all aspects of life and that leads to a surgeon in Dresden.

The transformation of Einar to Lili is taken seriously, without a single laugh or snigger, but with rose-colored glasses firmly in place. Even as Lili swoons toward death, she is beautiful and Einar has no regrets.

Hooper (“The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables”) takes us to back to a time and doesn’t ask hard questions or look at the potential downside of transgender issues. His Lili is a romantic heroine, one of a beautiful poetic tragedy where the transitions between male and female are a matter of gaining freedoms instead of losing anything, even in a male-dominated world of the past. The movie is rated R for nudity and adult themes.

“The Danish Girl”premiered at the Venice Film Festival and was given a limited release in late November. The movie will open to more screens on Dec. 25, 2015 in the U.S. It opens in the U.K. on January 1, 2016.

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