Usually when I review a film based on a true story I only write briefly about the film, concentrating on the facts behind it. I've decided not to do it in this case, because the film differs so greatly from what really happened in aspects vital to the story. If I wrote about the real Einar Wegener aka Lili Elbe it would be a totally different person to the one portrayed in the film. The film isn't to blame for the alteration of the facts. It's based on a best-selling novel by David Ebershoff, written in 2000, which fictionalises the events and their background. It's best that I avoid complications by treating the film as a work of fiction and only write about what it tells us.
Einar Wegener and his wife Gerda were both painters living in Denmark in 1920's. He was a successful landscape artist, considered by many to be Denmark's greatest living artist. She painted portraits of women and was less successful. When a model failed to turn up to be painted, Gerda asked Einar to dress up in women's clothing to take her place. Einar enjoyed the experience, and Gerda encouraged him to go out with her as a woman for a game. This game got out of control when Einar, calling himself Lili, began to flirt with a man at a dinner party.
Things became increasingly complicated. When dressed as a woman, Lili spoke of Einar in the third person, as if it were someone else. Similarly, when dressed as a man he spoke of Lili as a different person that he wanted to let out to play. This coincided with Gerda finally becoming successful, because her paintings of Lili were her best work ever.
After a few years Einar felt that it was time to abandon his male character and fully become Lili. To do this he went to Dresden for surgery to have his male organs removed and replaced by female organs. He chose the family name Elbe, the name of the river that flows through Dresden. The operation made him visually a woman, but it wasn't enough for him. He wanted to be able to have a baby, so he returned for a second operation that he didn't survive.
The acting of the two main characters is nothing short of phenomenal, worthy of Oscar nominations. It's almost that time again, isn't it? Eddie Redmayne ably manages to portray both a man and a woman, as well as the indecisiveness of someone living a double life. Alicia Vikander perfectly portrays the dilemma of a woman slowly losing the man she loves as he disappears into an abyss.
As I see it, the film was made with an agenda. It's intended to show the acceptability of people choosing their own gender, whether merely by dressing up as the opposite gender or undergoing gender alteration surgery. If I remember the correct words, Einar says of his operation, "God made me a woman. The doctor is curing me of the sickness that makes me look like a man". That's a highly political statement. It denies that a person undergoing a sex change operation is changing himself, it says that the person is being cured of something that was wrong in the first place.
Einar Wegener was not born a man. He was a hermaphrodite born with the traits of both genders. One of the complications in his second operation was that when the surgeon wanted to insert female reproductive organs, ovaries were found already present in his body.
Gerda Wegener was a lesbian and preferred her husband to dress as a woman.
Einar and Gerda lived in Paris much earlier than the film suggests, before the first World War. While in Paris, a city where nobody knew them, they lived as lesbian lovers.