A brave and sometimes affecting performance by Eddie Redmayne as the Danish artist Einar Wegener who became Lili Elbe by means of sex-change surgery in Berlin in the early 1930s, possibly the first person to undergo such a life-changing ordeal.
It’s based on a true story, or rather, on a recent American best-selling novel about it. The author says he didn’t intend it to be a historically accurate account, but in at least one important aspect it should have been: the real Lili Elbe was readily mistakable for a woman (see online photographs) whereas Eddie Redmayne in drag isn’t. His height, his boniness and his sharp features all belie the soft femininity Lili apparently achieved in real life, and on occasions lend an air of farce to the story.
The dialogue too often sounds like what you find in those greeting cards covered with flowers and sparkles and overwrought copperplate script. It’s cliched and sentimental and often anachronistic such as when characters say ‘I need you to…’ or ‘you have to let go of …(insert emotional baggage in question)’. I accept that people under 40 probably don’t even know that these ARE new usages, but would it hurt them to do a bit of research? They have dialogue coaches and intimacy advisers these days, why not contemporary colloquialism counsellors? Put a grumpy, picky baby-boomer like me on the payroll!
Matters are not improved by the musical soundtrack, which is mostly tinkling piano. In fact it occurred to me that the film is the cinematic equivalent of one of those melodramatic piano-led power ballads, which I hate, but maybe that’s just me with my aversion to over-sentimentality.
I found the early focus on fashion and design somewhat demeaning to the seriousness of the story, to the extent that some of the subsidiary characters, including his artist wife Gerda who stuck loyally by him (and which should have been a powerful role), came across as little more than splendid clothes horses. Except for Ben Whishaw, who’s always good.
And curiously, while there are some stunning landscape shots at the beginning and end of the story, Copenhagen itself is only ever evoked by one perfunctory shot of a canal-side street scene featuring quaint old houses and moored sailboats. I swear they used that exact same shot time and again. Perhaps it was too much trouble to close down more streets and clear them of cars.
This review was first published to Facebook on 5.2.16