Courtesy THE DANISH GIRL, the life of EINAR WEGENER / LILI ELBE has now respectfully entered modern cinematic lexicon. In the age of gender pride, marches, litigations for decriminalising archaic laws running roughshod over personal orientations and this gradual opening up of opportunities for bringing stories from all spectrums of the living world, this film is all important. If for nothing else then the simple fact that no ‘queer theory’ really explains one life, certainly not one of the sensitive artist EINAR WEGENER. It’s not even a matter of personal choice firstly for him as he battles with nuances of his selfhood on the most fundamental level : who am I?
For much of his adult life, he lives as a man poised for great promise in the art world and committed to a wife equal in artistic temperament, that is GERDA. But something was amiss, as if an innate lie or biological wiring had been left attached to him. One moment was where something deep- seated stirred inside him and he had no control over his impulses. The passage of reckoning had been approaching and when it did, it was of great personal evaluation, for the man, the wife and jointly for the couple at last. With THE DANISH GIRL (2015), director TOM HOOPER doesn’t make a political statement but sticks to the template of a turnaround that is at odds with society. Yet solutions are sought and answers are given.
We look at the poignancy of the tale and wonder if it’s a God given paradox for Einar and if so then why does someone with a whole future ahead have to contend with occupying a minority where his identity is bracketed in a box. The movement for understanding complexities going beyond the man/ woman binary had been greenlit with a life script as his in the very rudimentary, constricted world of early twentieth century. We have come a long way since then. THE DANISH GIRL tells us, thanks to its narrative, that some moorings are private and before we turn to take society’s consensus, we have to set the record straight within the hearth. I feel even a voice of the ‘so called minority’ has to be heard because it exists and has been given the divine right to air thoughts left suppressed by hypocrisies and multiple other limitations. The statute of truth is the one that recognizes that ‘we’ exist as human beings in the very first place .
To me, director TOM HOOPER has always demonstrated this very restrained consideration of social links lying at the heart of human interaction. In THE KING’S SPEECH(2010), the fumbling, stuttering King George ( Colin Firth) gives up none of his imperious nature and arrogant rootedness when he converses with Lionel Logue ( Geoffrey Rush) at an important crossroads when his speech defect casts a shadow over the monarchy. I can never forget Lionel’s rude awakening to that conditioned bent of mind as they walk swiftly through a London park and the king admonishes him, with a thankless disregard for his betokened services as his speech therapist. It’s heartbreakingly centred on this ego-driven, lop sided scheme of things where both can perhaps never fully be ‘ EQUALS’.
Similarly in THE DANISH GIRL, he shows us the gregarious yet essentially isolated inner world of the artistic sphere; the exhibitions and parties are plenty but true muse is sought in the empty living space of the Wegener’s apartment where both choose to fill the canvas with beauteous images. It is within this artistic sphere hence that the personal moods of Einar and Gerda morph into gender fluid dynamics of understanding physical embodiments of the opposite gender. Little do they know that there will be a subsequent rattle when the same neutrality of gender and sensual charm they acknowledge as painters in their subjects will attract a bigger awakening for both of them. The casual intimacy of that first painting in which Gerda playfully makes Einar pose as their friend, the popular dancer Ulla Paulson ( Amber Heard), is picturised with just the right tone.
There’s nothing more to it than the funny idea of play acting that is common when men play dress-up to the amusement of their female counterparts. It’s so common that there couldn’t possibly be anything remotely pathbreaking to it. Here it is for the artistic purpose. However, this goes on to produce a monumental ripple effect for Einar. Hooper astutely makes us see the larger unraveling for him as the consequential act allows Einar to slowly take steps towards acknowledging the fact that he has never really felt whole as a man. In these portions, we come to know of the impossibility of this, live as we do in a society where being male is close to everything to warrant pride of place in a cultural sense, and the silent strength that Einar musters up to break the news to his beloved. The hushed nature of this attests to the idea of ‘ what will people say?’ and it’s realistic to that tune. Ways of the world, after all, cannot be wished away with one snap of our fingers.
The sensual essence of the physical self, as opposed to a sexual one, is present in the moments both husband and wife spend together in their spacious flat, cooped up in bed and caressing their bodies in the way two in love are wont to. The camera frames these scenes with no vulgate display of nudity. Rather, it’s in the conversations between them and their looks. Even when painting, they share an unparalleled unity.
The same sensual aesthetic informs scenes where Einar probes his body, silently drawing us in to his helplessness, confusion and fascination for a feeling that comes from the depth of his soul. Here, it is an individual passage which is perhaps the most painful and simultaneously liberating for him. The internalization of it apart from what appears on screen is food for thought. It is meant to produce empathy and profound realization that nothing is in his hands. It’s naturally intertwined to his inner and outer core, informing him emotionally and psychologically. From the instance where he attends a party with Gerda, posing as a cousin of Einar, his being comes with a life changing metamorphosis as he not only attracts the attention of everybody owing to his poised appearance but also is courted by Henrik Sandahl ( Ben Whishaw). By the end of the evening, a kiss and a nosebleed take things for a 360 degree turn. This whole sequence of events lets us observe him embodying a genteel lady and the ease with which he carries himself gives us a clue as to what he desires.
Cue the scene later as Gerda unspools her own emotional turnaround parallel to Einar’s confession and mouths the lines, “Lily doesn’t exist. We made her up.” We reach out to her then and there and realize that a little prank wasn’t merely that for her husband. As she doubts herself for pushing Einar towards this state, a well rounded journey of a woman in deep throes of consciousness is unraveled by Alicia Vikander’s moving, Oscar winning performance.
On the part of technique, editor Melanie Ann Oliver, writing by Lucinda Coxon and cinematography by Danny Cohen are astute, efficient and to the point. For both actors, a sense of distance is created within the flat they share while the indoor / outdoor binary presents an internal churn and repression that Lili gets to shed as she explores her avenues of self definition outside, bravely courting companionship and even work. Hans Axgil ( Matthias Schoenaerts), Einar’s childhood friend and confidante, becomes a pivotal third wheel of the plot, bringing past reverberations to this present moment with a pleasant though stoic air while the presence of Dr. Kurt Warnekros ( Sebastian Koch) invites hope and freedom from judgement in a scenario where Einar had already been destined to be ‘cured’ of his condition and institutionalised.
The groundbreaking surgery for gender reassignment then is dealt with as a fact of life and its ripples seen in the health and personality of Lili. The focus is always on investing it with humanity. For how long can one be extricated from his / her natural disposition? It’s all in the way we look at life itself.
The gentle piano melody in the background score by Alexandre Desplat is enough to underline the quiet chaos punctuating this interplay of situations. Profound transformations, which can possibly invite doom, social ostracisation and even death given the stakes involved , need not be embodied in hysterics and stock gender stereotypes per se. The treatment here marks a cultural and more so personal shift for each person without a trace of intrusion or bad blood. In the process, an inner rustle that Lili faces is brought out of the fringes.
That said, Eddie Redmayne, devastatingly natural as Stephen Hawking in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, is an actor of immense physical prowess, agility and dare I say gender neutrality, going by how respectfully he nails nuances of the other gender with such tact and poise. It’s not a caricature but a higher form of identifying the other side of gender stratification by which standard this performer is raised to heights of unparalleled brilliance. I think for the uninitiated viewer, it will be difficult to predict the gender of the actor in the portions where Lili takes centrestage. That is the alchemy of great performances. Every supporting turn here rings true as well.
The closing moments are everything it represents : the agony, ecstasy of recognition and a permanent imprint of lives enduring beyond the mortal realm. Given its extremely relevant, time honoured, challenging subject, it achieves a beauty central to human nature when it dares to look at the other side of convention and make a breakthrough. I don’t think I will ever stop marveling at the exquisite imagery so wonderfully captured by Danny Cohen, the director of photography and Hooper.