The best queer movies are the scrappy ones. Whether it’s Pink Flamingos, The Rocky Horror Show or Tangerine, they are lewd, surreal and lovably low-budget. The Danish Girl is none of those things. It’s a glossy period drama with A-list actors, an Oscar-winning director (Tom Hooper) and an estimated budget of $25 million. Riding the wave of our cultural focus on gay issues, it tells the story of Lili (born Einar) Elbe, the real-life Danish painter who underwent the first gender confirmation surgery in 1930. All of this makes The Danish Girl seem like a canny move on the part of film studios with eyes on Academy gold. It comes as a surprise, then, when The Danish Girl turns out to be good—quite good.

The film opens on the sort of misty landscapes that Einar Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) made a career painting. These landscapes establish the “natural” beauty which Einar’s “unnatural” (though in no way less real) beauty will later contrast. Indeed, the film’s attention to surface appearance is exacting. Whether in set, scenery or costume, The Danish Girl is sumptuous to look at. While its polish sometimes takes away from the reality of Einar’s transformation, which is often grim, it also dignifies it. A transperson is worthy of Oscar treatment, too, the film seems to say.

Rather than cut to Einar or his work, the film introduces the stunning Gerda (Alicia Vikander), Einar’s wife. She’s also a painter, but the gallerist isn’t buying her touchy-feely landscapes. He wants more portraits of women, preferably naked ones. When Gerda’s friend Oola (Amber Heard) can’t model for a painting, she asks Einar to do it instead. He’s loath to stick his legs into tights and ballet slippers, but as he sits with his toe pointed, a curious sensation comes over him. Granted, the scene is hokey. It’s as if Einar lived his whole life without once trying on a bra (please), but against all odds, it’s nice to see queerness given Hollywood treatment.

Gradually, Einar’s relationship to femininity changes. He admires Oola’s ballet costumes, wears Gerda’s nightie and attends a party as Lili, “Einar’s cousin.” There, she (Lili) sneaks off with Henrik (Ben Whishaw), and though he may or may not know her biological sex, he kisses her and it’s life-changing.

Einar wants to be Lili, but the medical establishment cannot comprehend such a need. They pull out their diagnosis pads and so it begins: the pathology of “abnormal” behavior. Einar consents to radiation treatment, which will supposedly quell his desire to be a woman, but it drains him physically and, worse, it pushes away Lili, the person he truly is.

When Gerda’s paintings of Lili, her mesmerizing new subject, take off, they move to Paris, and the historic townhomes of Copenhagen are traded for glorious Art Nouveau apartments. Gerda befriends Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a handsome art dealer, and the film meanders as it tries to create a love triangle between Einar, Gerda and Hans. It finds it way again only when the opportunity for surgery arises and Einar resolves to be Lil, once and for all.

In the process of becoming Lili, Redmayne imitates women with grace and sensitivity. When he mimics the flick of a wrist or the turn of their fingers, the film comes to resemble an ode to acting itself. We are all posing, performing and transforming. It is the prerogative of both the actor, and perhaps the trans person, to turn that imitation into art, which is its own kind of truth.

Vikander’s Gerda practically steals the film. Not only does she speak up about feminist principles, she is a loyal companion to Lili. The complexity of their relationship goes unexplored (they sleep with a scrim between them?), but their love is believable. The honesty of Redmayne and Vikander’s performances make up for any shortcomings in the film’s script, which is occasionally trite.

With its fancy score (Alexandre Desplat), rich photography (Danny Cohen) and gilded cast, The Danish Girl is the sort of “prestige” picture that’s easy to dislike. Indeed, Hooper’s previous films (The King’s Speech and Les Misérables) were puffed-up, grandiose affairs. Yet The Danish Girl tells the moving story of one person’s quest to be themselves. It’s going to be a while before I forget the look in Lili’s eyes when she learns that she can have the surgery. It is the look of hope. If only it weren’t 85 years before such hopes could survive.

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