Article originally written for BBC.co.uk
Few movies capture the popular zeitgeist quite like King’s Speech director Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. It tells the story of the 1930s Danish artist Einar Wegener, played by Eddie Redmayne, who became one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, having decided to live life as a woman called Lili Elbe. The film also features Wegener’s wife Gerda, played by Alicia Vikander.
The Danish Girl comes in a year that has put transgender issues firmly into the spotlight. From the transition of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner, to the Emmy-winning success of Amazon’s series Transparent, even the White House chose to screen The Danish Girl as part of a celebration of LGBT artists.
Ironic, then, that Hooper has said the script was passed around for about 12 years struggling to secure backing because of what was seen as the story’s limited appeal.
“I hope it provides a message of hope,” says the Oscar-winning Hooper, who has previously worked with Redmayne on Elizabeth I and Les Miserables.
“It’s a message that transgender history matters. These were two extraordinary pioneers of the transgender movement who I think history had marginalised.”
Before locking the final cut of the film, he decided to screen the movie to one of Les Miserables’ musical directors, who was in the process of transitioning while making the film.
“The lights came up and she had tears on her face, and she said the amazing words, ‘How did you know?’ She said it was in many respects very true to her own experience and that was for me the most exciting.”
Despite this sensitivity to the subject matter, Hooper has faced criticism for not choosing to cast a transgender woman in the title role. He defended the decision, telling Variety that access to trans actors is limited, and that he had always had Redmayne in mind.
“There was something in Eddie that was drawn to the feminine,” he says. “He played the girls’ parts in school plays. I was a bit like Gerda in the film because Gerda becomes fascinated by the femininity in her husband and starts to paint it. I was fascinated by the femininity in Eddie and wanted to explore it.”
The film is as much about Gerda, and her demonstration of unconditional love and acceptance through an experience which is as much a transition for her as for her husband.
“I looked up to her,” says Vikander.
“I questioned, would I be able to do what she did. It was an extraordinary experience trying to find that strength because she’s never passive. Lili needs to be who she is but Gerda makes the decision to stand by her side. I’m a romantic at heart.”
In fact, it is Gerda who suggests her husband dresses as a woman. She asks Wegener to first pose for a painting, but more significantly then suggests he attends a ball dressed as Lili, and she goes on to paint portraits of her husband as a woman.
“You helped bring Lili to life but she was always there,” Lili later tells Gerda.
So did Gerda always know that her husband wanted to be a woman?
“She was able to see the inner self of the person she loved… When you know somebody really well, it’s not a big surprise when something comes up to the surface,” says Vikander.
Vikander’s scene-stealing performance, which has been nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award, gives the film “tremendous heart”, says Hooper.
“It’s phenomenal. In her hands Gerda never feels like a victim, which I think is really interesting.”
t has been an extraordinary year for the Swede who came to the public’s attention with roles in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Testament of Youth, Burnt and Ex Machina, for which she has been nominated for another Golden Globe.
Her star is set to rise further when she acts alongside Matt Damon in the fifth Jason Bourne movie.
Redmayne is attracting an equal amount of attention, following his Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe best actor nominations for his role.
The 33-year-old won the best actor award at this year’s Oscars for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, another transformative role.
With the screenplay originating from 2004, The Danish Girl has been 11 years in the making, its subject matter proving it a difficult film for Hollywood’s financiers to get behind.
But the critical recognition being given to Hooper, Vikander and Redmayne shows they are together a winning combination – and suggesting The Danish Girl was worth the wait.
The Danish Girl is due for release in UK cinemas on 1 January.