Review: Resonant 'Danish Girl' explores life of Lili Elbe

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Posted: Nov 24, 2015 12:14 PM
Review: Resonant 'Danish Girl' explores life of Lili Elbe

Most people probably don't know the name Lili Elbe. This reviewer didn't. But Tom Hooper's "The Danish Girl" will make sure you won't soon forget the transgender icon, even if this well-intentioned, extravagant movie leaves you with more questions than revelations.

Almost a century before Caitlyn Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair, Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener) became one of the first transgender women to undergo documented sex reassignment surgery.

Eddie Redmayne, who adroitly disappeared into the character Stephen Hawking for "The Theory of Everything," has taken on the task of another transformation to portray Einar/Lili throughout her discovery and transition. He uses his androgynous frame, delicate features, and refined beauty to full effect in representing the physical realization of Lili.

The timing of this film, based on the book by David Ebershoff, couldn't be more perfect and yet it also feels far too late. That's not the fault of the filmmakers here, but more a result of constantly shifting culture.

This is all to say that the film has an almost impossible standard to live up to, especially now — both in doing justice to Lili's life as well as to the audience who may only learn about her through what they see on screen. In some ways it succeeds beautifully. Ideas swirl readily and boldly, especially considering the time in which it's taking place. This is not a shy movie. In fact, it's refreshingly sexual, alive and empathetic, at least at the start.

In other ways, it comes up lacking. Its respect for beauty and dramatic narrative stays surface level and almost detached. You walk away barely knowing Lili at all. Perhaps that's because "The Danish Girl" feels like two separate films — a playful, adventurous beginning is followed by morose melodrama.

At least it's energetic and full of life when we first meet Einar and his stunning wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) in the mid-1920s in Copenhagen. They're both painters of some renown, him more than her at the moment. He paints landscapes. She paints portraits. And they live a playful, happy, intimate life as friends and partners in this quickly modernizing society.

One day, Gerda's subject is late for her portraiture and she has Einar sub in as the model. Einar slips on a pair of stockings and ornate slippers and cradles the gown, breathing rapidly as though feeling pleasure for the first time. From there it becomes a bit of a game for Gerda and Einar, until Einar realizes (or finally acknowledges) that it's not just dress up and that Lili is her true self.

But as Lili becomes more herself, she also becomes less of an emotionally available partner to Gerda (despite being Gerda's professional muse). This is where the story takes a turn for the worse. The film is about Lili, yes, but it doesn't seem interested in the loneliness and poignancy of what she is going through. She almost slips into the background.

Instead, we find dramatic resonance in Gerda. Vikander, who has delivered some astonishing performances this year in "Ex Machina" and "Testament of Youth," is once again a revelation as a woman supporting the person she loves in wholly unchartered societal waters. She's not a martyr and she does have and express her own needs — including criticizing Lili's lack of artistic ambition. But events are more buttoned up here than in reality.

"The Danish Girl" looks like a dream and is about as elusive as one too. What is there can suffice, educate and provoke interest and conversation, but ultimately, it's hard not to want more.

"The Danish Girl," a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for some sexuality and full nudity. Running time: 120 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr