By John Campbell
In 1930, Copenhagen artist Einar Wegener travelled to Dresden (Germany) to begin a course of the first documented sex-reassignment operations.
Director Tom Hooper’s film, charting events in Wegener’s life from 1926 until that point, when he ‘formally’ became Lili Elbe, is meticulously constructed and sensitively presented; there is never a hint of tacky voyeurism, but neither is there a deep emotional undercurrent. This may have something to do with Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Einar/Lili.
Prizeworthy though it may be (as was his Stephen Hawking), he seems at times to be milking it in a way that slides into caricature – in one close-up, he sobs despairingly, but it feels try-hard, with the near proximity of the rolling camera unavoidably felt. And, most unexpectedly (if arguable), Redmayne looks more feminine as Einar than when he is lippied and frocked-up as Lili (neither of whom are as pretty as Ben Whishaw’s homosexual Henrik, who takes a shine to Lili). There is also a strange echo of Norman Bates in drag as Hooper maintains an emphasis on his subject’s struggle between the façade and the interior, between body and soul.
For mine, the movie belongs to Alicia Vikander, who plays Einar’s wife and fellow painter, Gerda. It is she who originally encourages her husband’s cross-dressing and it is she who, by painting portraits of Lili, will benefit professionally from the gender-bending that is undermining her marriage while at the same time straining to cope with the realisation that she will forever love a person who, day by day, is disappearing from her life. Vikander’s intricately faceted, crystalline and extremely moving portrayal makes it difficult to not care more for her than for the mincing Redmayne.
Sketchy interest is shown in contemporary society’s attitude to sexuality via a shocking incident in which Einar is bashed in a Paris park for being gay, and other medical practitioners’ responses to the question of sexual orientation treated cursorily, but Grant Armstrong’s art direction and Danny Cohen’s photography is beautifully evocative of time and place.