Courage, hope and inspiration heralded in ‘The Danish Girl’

“The Danish Girl” (2015). Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard, Adrian Schiller, Sebastian Koch, Pip Torrens. Director: Tom Hooper. Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon. Book: David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl. Web site. Trailer.

To get through awkward times during our upbringing, most of us were probably advised at one point or another to “just be yourself,” a nebulous suggestion we likely found difficult to fathom. But consider what that might mean for someone who lacks a clear sense of his or her own identity, even when it comes to something as fundamental as gender. Imagine how frightening such a prospect would be. If you can appreciate that, then you’ll have an idea of what goes on in the mind of the protagonist in the new fact-based biopic, “The Danish Girl.”

In 1926, life was good for Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). The couple lived comfortably in Copenhagen as aspiring artists; Einar specialized in landscapes, and Gerda painted portraits. When not working, they enjoyed a lively social life, hobnobbing with the city’s social elite and members of the arts community, such as their good friend, Ulla (Amber Heard), a colorful though somewhat flighty ballet dancer. But, above all, they were madly in love with one another. They were also anxious to start a family, a process that wasn’t going too well (but at which they nevertheless kept trying).

Life took a strange turn one day, however, when Gerda made an unusual, though seemingly innocent request of her husband. For some time, Gerda had been working on an oversized portrait of a ballerina for which Ulla had been modeling. But, true to her unreliable nature, Ulla didn’t show up for her appointment, leaving Gerda without a model. Given that the painting was nearly finished, Gerda was eager to complete it, so she asked Einar if he wouldn’t mind serving as a stand-in. Einar was reluctant, but Gerda assured him that she didn’t need him to don the full outfit; she merely needed him to model the ballerina’s shoes and stockings, a request to which he eventually agreed.

However, as Gerda began painting, she found she didn’t have sufficient perspective to continue with her work; she told Einar that she needed him to hold up the tutu so she could see how the stockings and shoes related to the rest of the outfit. He again agreed somewhat reluctantly, but, as he drew the costume close to him, it cast a spell over him. He felt a certain inexplicable comfort with this gesture, and Gerda could sense that almost instantaneously. She found Einar’s ease with the clothing somewhat provocative, even titillating, since it lent him an unexpectedly natural grace and beauty.

Einar and Gerda got a few laughs out of this incident, too, and those chuckles prompted an idea for an interesting little prank – wouldn’t it be fun if Einar went out in public dressed up in full female garb, perhaps even to one of their high-profile social events, to see if anyone would recognize him? And so, after a little coaching, that’s just what they did, a move that drew more of a reaction than they bargained for.

When the pair arrived at the event, Gerda introduced her female companion as Lili Elbe, Einar’s cousin. But Einar’s transformation was so convincing that no one but Ulla recognized him. His clothes, makeup and mannerisms were so alluring that he quickly drew the attention of a host of would-be male suitors, such as Henrik (Ben Whishaw), who made no attempt at hiding his affection. And, when Gerda saw this, suddenly the little joke didn’t seem quite so funny anymore.

Still, despite Gerda’s now-conflicted feelings about what might be going on with her husband, she also saw an opportunity emerge. Einar as Lili provided fertile subject matter for Gerda’s paintings, and, before long, she had ample interest from the Paris arts community in her newest works. But, while Gerda seemed to be finding herself, Einar was losing himself, and no one seemed to be able to help. Even a doctor (Pip Torrens) who claimed to be able to assist him was quick to give up on his patient, ready to subject Einar to sanctioned treatment for “perversion.”

News of the doctor’s diagnosis prompted a hasty move to Paris. Einar, who now spent much of his time as Lili, lost nearly all interest in painting. He saw several more doctors, but they were all quick to label him either a homosexual or mentally ill, diagnoses that both he and Gerda knew weren’t true. With little hope, Einar withdrew from life, lost and unsure what to do.

Gerda, meanwhile, saw her profile rise in the Paris arts community. She befriended an influential arts dealer, Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), who turned out to be a childhood friend of Einar – and with whom she was developing a growing attraction. Together Gerda and Hans sought to find help for Lili, which they found through a progressively minded German doctor, Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch). Through a series of counseling sessions, Prof. Warnekros came to realize that Lili was neither homosexual nor mentally ill; he recognized the real nature of her circumstances – the dilemma of being a woman trapped in a man’s body.

However, even with such an accurate diagnosis, what was Lili to do? Prof. Warnekros suggested a radical, experimental approach to addressing her circumstances – gender reassignment surgery. The procedure was untried, and success was far from guaranteed, but Lili seriously had to consider the option. Balancing the risks and rewards called for a big decision, but it was one that might be her only way to find peace.

When confronted with such a painful predicament, it’s understandable how one might not want to deal with it, especially when potential resolution involves making a painful choice. However, to remove the agony, having the courage to forge ahead may be the only way to alleviate the suffering. This is thus a prime example of how important it is to get in touch with our feelings and beliefs, the driving forces of the conscious creation process, the means by which our reality unfolds.

For Lili to be able to make a decision like this, it’s crucial that she examine her innermost beliefs about herself, and she must be brutally honest in doing so. Indeed, is she truly the woman she claims to be, or is the presence of this recently emerged persona some delusional creation of Einar’s? Facing down that question, then, is essential to understand those heartfelt intents.

In some ways, this may be a tricky proposition, given our intrinsic multidimensional nature. Conscious creation maintains that there are many parts to our greater selves but that we’re usually only aware of our “localized” personas, the ones into which we focus the lion’s share of our consciousness. However, sometimes we find that previously unknown aspects of our localized selves begin to emerge, which can cause conflict and confusion, especially if those new attributes tend to run counter to what we’ve typically come to believe about who and what we are.

In light of the foregoing, then, is it possible, for instance, for someone to identify with both a male and a female self simultaneously? From a conscious creation perspective, the answer could potentially be yes or no (and to varying degrees). This again depends on our beliefs, particularly those associated with how willing our localized selves are to allow the various aspects of our greater selves to express themselves, either individually or in tandem.

This is at the heart of Einar and Lili’s quandary, yet they must address it to know how to proceed. As the film unfolds, viewers learn that the emergence of Lili’s persona is not entirely the recent phenomenon that everyone has been led to believe. Einar acknowledges that he sensed her presence as far back as childhood but suppressed the idea; after all, he was in a man’s body. But does the body alone define one’s persona? As time passes and Lili begins to forge beliefs that allow her to give expression to her repressed self, her true identity starts to emerge. And, with that realization, perhaps now it’s time to finally let her come to life.

Once this question is answered, the next step is to determine whether or not one possesses the fortitude to press on, moving beyond whatever fears lie ahead. This, too, is crucial, for fear-based beliefs undercut our manifestation abilities by presenting our divine conscious creation collaborator with an unsolvable contradiction. The Universe (or God, Goddess, All That Is or whatever other term best suits you) is unable to comply with our materialization request because of this inherent paradox. So, to move head, our fears (and the beliefs that drive them) must be eliminated.

Given Lili’s willingness to embrace her true identity, it’s obvious the fear issue is something she’s ready to leave behind. It’s something that no longer serves her (or Einar for that matter), so she can press ahead with her newest creation – becoming a full-fledged woman in every sense of the word. It’s something she apparently wants badly enough, too, considering how adept she has become at drawing to her the synchronicities she needs to make it possible.

Synchronicities – those meaningful “coincidences” that seem so perfectly suited to our needs that they can’t possibly be instances of random chance – play a huge role in Lili’s transformation. For example, would Lili’s emergence have occurred if it had not been for Ulla’s failure to show up for her modeling appointment? Similarly, what would have happened if Gerda had managed to become pregnant? But, perhaps most importantly, would Lili have ever met Prof. Warnekros (and everything that came with that) if Gerda had not painted the portraits that raised her artistic profile and subsequently prompted the couple’s move from Copenhagen to Paris?

Such seemingly little incidents might superficially appear to have little significance at the time they occur. However, as events transpire, their importance grows in magnitude, ultimately proving to be quite fortuitous in helping Lili attain her goal. But, then, they also would not have occurred were it not for Lili putting out the beliefs and intents that manifested them – and everything that they birthed – in the first place. And, by drawing them into her existence, she demonstrates how conscious creation (or, as it’s sometimes known, the law of attraction) truly works.

In pursuing this course, Lili also lives out her value fulfillment, the conscious creation concept associated with being one’s best, truest self for the benefit of ourselves and those around us. This becomes apparent in a number of ways, too. For example, by providing subject matter for Gerda, Lili gave her onetime spouse a significant boost to her artistic career. But, perhaps even more importantly, Lili was a pioneer in the transgender movement. By taking such fearless steps at a time when gender reassignment surgery was experimental and when the mere thought of something so radically taboo as a sex change was considered positively scandalous, Lili courageously led all those who would follow her in generations to come. Her efforts ultimately benefitted many, none of whom she would know, but her legacy left an indelible mark that would help bring peace of mind to those who might not have otherwise known it.

As “The Danish Girl” aptly illustrates, director Tom Hooper seems to keep finding ways to knock it out of the park, much as he did in previous efforts like “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “Les Misérables” (2012). This sensitive, moving, lavishly produced period piece is easily one of the year’s best. Its superb performances by Redmayne and Vikander, backed by excellent production values, gorgeous cinematography and a sweeping soundtrack, make for heartfelt, affecting viewing. The pacing is a bit sluggish in a few spots, but everything else is top shelf across the board.

From my perspective, perhaps the film’s only troubling aspect is that it’s based on a novel, and not a biography, of historic figures. While such works tend to make for good entertainment, they’re not the most reliable when it comes to authenticity. Sticklers (like me) may take issue with this (to varying degrees), but, for those who can successfully look past it, good, inspiring storytelling nevertheless awaits, and it all comes wrapped up in a gorgeously executed package.

“The Danish Girl” is racking up significant recognition in this year’s awards competitions. Thus far it has earned three Golden Globe Award nominations for the lead performances by Redmayne and Vikander, as well as its original score. In the Screen Actors Guild contest, Redmayne scored another nod, as did Vikander but in the supporting actress category. The film’s biggest haul, however, has come in the Critics Choice Award competition, where it captured nominations for Redmayne and Vikander (again in the supporting category), as well as recognition for production design, costumes, and hair and makeup. Look for the picture to earn its share of Oscar nods when those nominations are announced.

Taking the first bold step toward discovering one’s destiny is rarely easy. That’s particularly true when such a step involves charting new territory, especially when it entails pursuing objectives that others ridicule or even persecute. But progress depends on pioneers who venture into unexplored realms, and that’s where courageous souls like Lili Elbe make their mark. They provide inspiration to those who walk in their footsteps – impressions that never would have been made were it not for the bold moves they were willing to make.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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