There was something extraordinary about Lili Elbe, born Einar Wegener, one of the first transgender people known to be given sex reassignment surgery. To hear The Danish Girl tell it, she was the first -- but this is a largely fictionalized account of this successful painter, whose wife, Gerda Wegener, was also a painter. And in this story, it is Lili, since the very earliest stages of her coming out, who is the subject of Gerda's first successful paintings. It should be noted: these people lived, this way, in the 1930s. Granted, it was Denmark, but whatever.
If you want to despair at the continued ignorance of the general American public regarding the transgender community, just browse any comment board on review page of this movie. It's getting "generally favorable reviews" according to MetaCritic.com, but "mixed or average reviews" by viewers. At least the ones who bother to post comments, anyway. Either way, this movie isn't going to make a lot of money. It opened against The Force Awakens, after all, a movie that grossed a record $248 million domestically its opening weekend. The Danish Girl came in at #15, grossing barely half a million dollars. To be fair, it was playing on all of 81 screens, and in terms of per-screen average it ranked #8.
That's neither here nor there. People need to see this movie! Even the apparently many who "don't get it." If you have even half an open mind, however, you will. At its core, The Danish Girl is a love story, and one not really seen on the big screen before. Lili is encouraged by Gerda, who needs a model for shoes in the portrait of a ballerina she's painting. As a joke, she brings her husband, as Lili, to an event that she never had any interest in accompanying her to as Einar. Lili meets a man there (played by the reliably lovely Ben Whishaw), who instantly begins to court her, causing some confusion in Lili. This man sees Lili as a man, however, and is later revealed to be gay. Once Lili's transition is complete, there is nothing romantic between them. I mention this only because of how well this relationship serves as a reminder of the line between gender and sexuality.
Make no mistake, there is heartbreak to this story. How could there not be, when Gerda quite understandably begins the miss the man she thought she married? But this is also a story of a wife who is stunningly understanding -- almost unrealistically so. Evidently the woman Gerda is based on was actually openly bisexual, which one can see how she would adjust to her spouse's changes. But here, she is presented as both straight and dedicated -- a faithful wife until Lili's transition makes it impossible for her to be a wife anymore. There was no same-sex marriage in the thirties; not even in Denmark.
Thus, the script is the weakest element in this film, but not by a wide margin. This is a truly fascinating relationship and a fascinating story, and the actors are excellent; Eddie Redmayne as Lili is as good as he's ever been, a lock for an Oscar nomination. His depiction of Lili is loaded with nuance, ranging from panic to relief, all played with both subtlety and warmth. He is to be credited for every reason we sympathize with Lili. And I suppose the flip side of the people who "don't get it" should be mentioned -- the trans activists who decry the use of a non-trans person to play the role. This is the nature of acting, people -- to portray a character that you aren't in real life! People should demand less of trans actors playing trans roles and more of trans actors cast in regular roles. Because Redmayne is perfectly cast here.
But Alicia Vikander is also wonderful as Gerda, herself radiant and splendid in the role of an incredibly understanding but still frustrated wife. In the context of her time, it's hard to imagine a change more radical happening to her husband. He'd have to have revealed himself to be an alien. And we do see them taking appointments with countless doctors, most of whom deem Lili to be insane in one way or another; one "treatment" literally involves aiming radiation directly at her genitals. But, eventually they actually find a doctor who reserves judgment, and actually helps Lili. He offers her both the removal of male genitals and the construction of a vagina. Garda is terrified of the very real risks. Lili's response is to say, "It's my only hope."
And that is the undercurrent in The Danish Girl that really makes it worth a look: hope. There may be real tragedy to Lili's life, but she's still a woman who figured out who she was, which thus adds an element of hope to this story. This is the very beginning of the science that evolved into the ways transgender people can be helped on a reliable medical level today. These sorts of things never start out with shining successes with no hitches. Lili is a trans person who long ago paved the way for others like her to follow. Doctors today understand how to make people their fully realized selves. It's our culture that needs to catch up. But this movie's very existence is evidence of that happening. More people just need to be made aware of its existence.