Caitlyn Jenner's coming out lends relevance to The Danish Girl, in addition to hindsight admiration. Jenner's journey to herself was forged by women like Lili Elbe, in times even more difficult for transgender people, like the 1920s. Lili is a reason Caitlyn and others like her breathe easier now.
The timing of telling Lili's story isn't lost on Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), who invests each frame of The Danish Girl with pristine importance. Hooper is a filmmaker whose signature is someone else's work: set designers and costumers duplicating eras for cameras to caress.
Give him a morally superior tale like Lili's and Hooper will build a perfect beast of period decor. Then it's all up to whoever is before the camera. Colin Firth as a stuttering monarch? Great. Russell Crowe singing faux opera? Not so much.
Fortunately, Hooper has a pair of extraordinary actors on which to hang The Danish Girl, two of the finest performances of women this year. Not "by" women — performances of women, the grandest by Eddie Redmayne as Lili and her lifelong male alter ego, landscape artist Einar Wegener.
The other belongs to Alicia Vikander as Einar's wife and Lili's confidante Gerda, whose confusion and compassion pours from this rising actor's face. Gerda is also an artist, whose portraits aren't selling so even that sliver of empowerment slips away as Lili emerges. Vikander subtly distills Gerda's roiling emotions, as each are tempted, stray and yet continue to lean on each other.
Redmayne and Vikander's mutual contributions to Hooper's museum settings and docent pacing are invaluable. Einar and Gerda are a touching love story; Lili and Gerda two sides of the same repressed feminine coin. Few pairings this year are so emotionally dynamic, so many things able to go right or wrong.
Redmayne is uncanny in his dual role, especially in those moments between his gender extremes, when Einar is curious about women, what they wear, how they move. The erotic liberation of a peep show when Einar mimics the model, or when he first slips on stockings is made palpable by Redmayne, his gentle, freckled features practically glowing.
Lili's lasting contribution to gender politics is that she was among the first reported patients undergoing gender reassignment surgery. The facts deny viewers of much information after that decision is made, forcing an abrupt conclusion. Handsome as always but unsatisfactory.
To be fair, that wan ending isn't entirely Hooper's fault. Blame is shared by facts that transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner and supporters continue to change. Too late for Lili, not others.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.