He and she

David Ebershoff’s 2000 bestseller The Danish Girl, based on/inspired by the lives of artists Einar and Gerda Wegener, has been adapted to the screen in genteel albeit well-acted fashion by Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper.

Fresh from his Best Actor Oscar in last year’s The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne offers another smashing portrayal – two, actually – as Einar, who comes to realize he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body and adopts the alter-ego of Einar’s non-existent cousin Lili.

What started as a charade when one of Gerda’s models didn’t show up for a sitting, becomes something else again. Gerda (Alicia Vikander) isn’t entirely prepared for her husband’s disclosure – who would be? – but she stands by her man, even when he decides he wants to be a woman.

Redmayne truly creates distinctive personalities for each character – one can’t help but miss Einar when Lili “enters” – and his fascinating performance is neatly balanced by Vikander’s enormously sympathetic performance. Redmayne’s is the showier role (obviously), but Vikander is the film’s backbone. Einar has found his identity, Gerda may have lost, or seceded, hers.

Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay steadfastly avoids sensationalism of any kind. Indeed, there’s very little sense of the scandal this story might have caused, particularly in a 1920s setting. Hooper opts instead to focus almost exclusively on the relationship between Einar and Gerda, so close and intimate is their aesthetic and emotional bond.

The film works best as a tearjerker rather than a social polemic (although those elements are present), but it’s difficult to resist Redmayne and Vikander’s enormously sympathetic turns. Take away the gorgeous locations and Danny Cogen’s equally gorgeous cinematography, however, and The Danish Girl would feel right at home on the stage.

The Danish Girl opens Friday