We’ve all read about, or even know, people who have led tortured lives because they believe they were born in the wrong body. This has led to a growing acceptance of transgender people in our society. Artist Einar Wegener felt these stirrings in Copenhagen during the 1920s, when the concept was alien to society at large and, more important, the surgical procedure to solve the problem was dangerous and new. But Einar was fortunate enough to have something not everyone (then or now) could rely on: someone who genuinely loved him, his wife Gerda.
While The Danish Girl chronicles Einar’s mental and physical transformation into Lili Elbe, its real achievement is dramatizing a love story between two people who genuinely care about each other. It should be no surprise, by now, that Eddie Redmayne is an exceptionally versatile actor: coming on the heels of his Oscar-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, this deeply-felt, empathetic performance adds another feather to his cap.
His achievement is matched by Alicia Vikander, another actress on the rise whose varied résumé includes A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina, Testament of Youth, Ex Machina, and even The Man from U.N.C.L.E. She is tremendously effective as Wegener’s devoted wife, an artist herself who can be mercurial at times. She is taken aback when she learns of her husband’s dilemma, and not always certain how to respond—which makes her all the more believable—but the key to her character is her abiding love for Einar.
Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay, based on a novel by David Ebershoff, makes these characters, and the people in their orbit (including those played by Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, and Matthias Schoenaerts), seem real. Their evolution, as individuals and as a couple, and the crises they face, are enacted with care and honesty. Director Tom Hooper observes without judging and, in so doing, encourages us to do the same.
But I will make this judgment: Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander give two of the finest performances of the year.