Movies, especially those “based on a true story,” can too often be waylaid by politics: The Imitation Game suffered from a desire to make Alan Turing a gay martyr, Selma was plagued by accusations of distorting history, and Suffragette felt too much like a history lesson. The danger of making movies about social justice, civil rights and gender equality is that the movie can feel heavy-handed—art becomes activism.
The Danish Girl, which tells the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people in history to undergo gender reassignment surgery, from male to female, seems like a prime candidate for this problem, a movie inherently politicized by its subject matter. But it deftly sidesteps the pitfall of its politics by staying entirely focused on the relationship between its two central characters.
Based on David Ebershoff’s debut novel from 2000, the movie opens in Copenhagen in 1930 before Lili’s transition (during this part of the movie her name is Einar), where she and her wife Gerda Wegener (Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander) live in wedded, bohemian bliss. The movie dedicates time to establishing the couple’s loving relationship, both emotional and sexual. Einar and Gerda are convinced each is the other’s soulmate, and they are trying eagerly to have a baby. As artists they work side by side—Einar on different iterations of the same landscape, Gerda on portraits—and one day, when her model doesn’t show up, Gerda asks her husband to sit in her place. “I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing,” Lili would write about this moment in her 1932 memoir. “I felt very much at home in them from the first moment.”
At first, Gerda is a willing accomplice to her husband; she giggles while painting his lips and choosing his dresses, delighted and even sexually aroused by it. But something stirs within Einar, an impulse he buried as a child, and for all of Gerda’s tears he can’t stop himself from pursuing a life as Lili, first by changing the way he dresses, and finally by seeking surgery.
With this performance, Redmayne could feasibly become only the fourth actor ever to win back-to-back Oscars. (The last actor to do so was Tom Hanks in 1994.) Redmayne’s Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything was a physical spectacle, a master class of discipline and control. (The actor kept a chart mapping Hawking’s decline scene by scene, muscle by muscle, a feat all the more impressive considering he filmed the scenes out of order.) In The Danish Girl, the physical transformation is not so systematic, but Redmayne, for whom speaking always seems slightly laborious, puts in another inspired physical performance.
Redmayne was director Tom Hooper’s first choice for the role and it’s not difficult to see why: As Lili, Eddie Redmayne is beautiful. Slipping from boyish charm into feminine loveliness feels easy, almost natural. But that would be selling Redmayne short: It’s not just that he looks good as a woman; it’s that he excels at the performance of womanhood. Early in the movie, Gerda sketches her sleeping husband, his right hand laid delicately across his chest, almost caressing the left side of his neck. It’s a passing detail at the time, perhaps too affected and painterly, but later, it becomes a familiar position for Lili, a feminine, protective stance shielding her from the criticism of the world.
Through this pose, as well as Redmayne’s shy smile and quick glances, we come to recognize Lili in Einar, even as the line between them blurs and finally, disappears. Even after Lili tries to go back to being Einar—makeup and wig removed, suit and tie restored—Redmayne’s face somehow remains that of Lili rather than Einar. It’s a remarkable performance, keyed in to the nuances of human movement and of the physical manifestations of gender. It’s not just Redmayne performing Einar and Lili; it’s also Lili’s performance of masculinity and femininity. She copies the movement of women’s hands while choosing fish at the market, she watches his wife coax stockings up her legs, she studies a naked woman pleasuring herself at a peepshow, drinking in the details, the desires, the limits of womanhood. By the end of the movie, it’s as if Einar never existed.
But while Redmayne has the showier role, Vikander anchors the movie. (Her performance has even led to criticism that, even though the movie tells a trans person’s story, its hero is a cisgender character.) In this way, The Danish Girl is not so different from The Theory of Everything, exploring the toll of a long, profound, and irreversible change on a loving marriage. Like Jane Hawking, Gerda’s love and dedication to her husband may seem saintly, but Vikander ensures Gerda is never condemned to so dull a fate. As screenwriter Lucinda Coxon put it, “Gerda’s goodness is never passive,” and some of the movie’s most interesting moments are when it pauses to dwell on Lili’s effect on Gerda. Not only does Gerda lose her husband, but she’s caught in an agonizing paradox: Her career takes off after she starts painting nudes of Lili, combining Lili’s face with the female form her lover so desperately craves.
The Danish Girl may be, for Hollywood, the most high-profile portrayal of a trans person to date. It’s already been criticized for casting a cisgender actor to play a trans woman, and it’s bound to face much more criticism, both political and artistic, on its long road to the Academy Awards. But the film, with its tender performances and painterly cinematography, asks to be judged by the strength of its storytelling rather than its significance as a cultural touchstone.