Man! I feel like a woman…
The timing couldn’t be better, really. In the year of Caitlyn Jenner and TV’s Transparent, this handsome and sensitively played biopic about Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, pushes all the right topical buttons.
Recounting how 1920s Copenhagen artist Einar Wegener found his inner girl when he posed as ‘Lili’ for his wife Gerda’s daring portraits, it also provides a fine showcase for Eddie Redmayne’s transformative powers. Like The Theory Of Everything, this is an outsider triumph-and-tragedy tale, with Redmayne’s confused-but-determined Einar creating Lili’s transition as carefully as one of his landscape paintings.
To make the story relatable, the Wegeners’ stormy and unconventional marriage is put resolutely front and centre, all the way from newlywed gender-bending frolics in bedrooms and ballrooms to ‘three people in this marriage’ anguish. Too bad that, unlike director Tom Hooper’s Oscar-laden The King’s Speech, where an odd-couple friendship powers the story, Gerda and Einar’s bond proves more glamorous, but less moving.
Performance power isn’t lacking here – Alicia Vikander’s feisty Gerda, torn between helping Lili and losing Einar, gives it her all. She’s overshadowed, however, by Redmayne’s delicate, androgynous performance, moving from shy experimenter to fully-fledged femme without a false move.
Even those daring scenes in which Einar strips-and-tucks to conjure up Lili, or mimics a naked hooker’s seductive poses, are tender rather than titter-raising. By contrast, the Wegeners’ rows and reconciliations feel overwritten, the show-and-tell dialogue (“I felt I was kissing myself!”) just underlining what’s already perfectly visible. And throwing Matthias Schoenaerts’ world-weary art-dealer Hans in between them ups the melodrama more than the excitement.
The film’s considerable visual beauty at times overwhelms rather than offsets the drama. It creates a gorgeous setting for Redmayne’s performance, but along with Alexandre Desplat’s lush, string-sobbing score, makes for a self-consciously rich mix.
Thematically it’s all in the best possible taste, careful not to upset either multiplex viewers or the transgender community with anything crass or edgy. While admirably spotlighting Lili’s bravery, the film does develop a faint whiff of well-dressed earnestness. A little less decorum wouldn’t have hurt – and would have made it a whole lot more fun.