‘Danish Girl’: Fine acting as transforming man, uncertain wife

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Exquisite and restrained, “The Danish Girl” is just about the most mainstream film one could make about a married man and successful artist in 1920s Copenhagen whose interest in wearing his wife’s garments sparks an awakening that leads to him seeking sex reassignment surgery.

As directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), this is a lovely movie, with a sweeping score by Alexandre Desplat, endless exterior beauty shots (e.g., colorful row houses reflecting in the canal), and myriad scenes set in sophisticated parties where beautiful and enlightened people throw their heads back in the laughter of the self-satisfied intellectual.

So lovely a film, in fact, as to be nearly tame.

Fresh off his Oscar win for “The Theory of Everything” and firmly established as one of our most versatile and interesting actors, Eddie Redmayne once again inhabits the persona of a real-life figure. He gives a dignified, subtle and at times daring performance as Einar, a young, dashing, up-and-coming painter who’s already something of a star in the Copenhagen art community by the mid-1920s.

And why not? In addition to the fine work Einar produces, he’s the sort of effortlessly refined chap who looks like he rolled out of bed in his dress whites, and he manages to be an endearing personality despite (or perhaps because of) a healthy supply of ego and a keen self-awareness of his effect upon the ladies.

Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) plays the beautiful and charming Gerda, who’s still trying to find her way as an artist and is eking out a living doing conventional portrait work, when she gets one look at Einar at a party and is a goner.

Let the biopic love affair begin.

Einar and Gerda fancy themselves as quite the cosmopolitan couple, much to the conversational delight of Gerda’s best friend, the rambunctious Ulla (Amber Heard). At galas and art openings, they and their friends delight in recounting shocking tales of their respective bedroom antics.

Hooper drops hints — subtle and not-so-subtle — of Einar’s interest in dressing as a woman (and ultimately becoming a woman), until we get to the point where Einar’s sexual arousal is heightened when he wears her undergarments in bed with her and calls himself “Lili.”

Once Lili leaves the house with Gerda and they attend a lavish event where MOST of the guests don’t figure out Lili is actually Einar, there’s no turning back. Einar virtually disappears as Lili fully embraces something she’s always known: She’s a woman trapped inside a man’s body.

Although Gerda has mixed emotions about her husband’s journey of self-discovery, it doesn’t stop her from creating a series of bold, stunning paintings with Einar/Lili as her subject. After years of struggling to find her artistic voice, Gerda sees her career soar on the wings of her husband’s gender identity switch.

Although Redmayne of course has the showier role and does a magnificent job of transforming into Lili, in some ways Alicia Vikander has the more equally challenging role in Gerda. Once Lili acknowledges to herself and the world she wants to become a woman, there’s not a hint of self-doubt or second thoughts. She LOVES being a woman.

Gerda, though, is still in love with the man she married — and as liberal and as free-thinking as she might be, she still wants to explore every available option to get her husband to change his mind before he changes everything. Even after Lili’s transformation is nearly complete, Gerda is torn between pursuing a new relationship or remaining married. It’s a wonderful and complex performance by Vikander.

“The Danish Girl” is inspired by the true story of Lili Elbe, one of the world’s first recipients of sex reassignment surgery. Given the explosion of attention surrounding Caitlyn Jenner, imagine what it must have been like for a young man nearly a century ago to tell his wife and just about everyone else in his world that his intention was to become a woman.

Lili’s transformation doesn’t take place without serious roadblocks, from some ignorant and gruesome reactions from the medical community to the obligatory assault by two thugs who aren’t sure if Lili is a man or a woman.

Mostly, though, “The Danish Girl” is a well-told, well-acted, well-photographed period piece.

“The Danish Girl”

[s3r star=3/4]

Focus Features presents a film directed by Tom Hooper and written by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel by David Ebershoff. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated R (for some sexuality and full nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters. 

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