The Danish Girl seems like an unusually timely movie. Director Tom Hooper’s film, opening Nov. 27, tells the story of Lili Elbe, who in 1930 underwent the first well-documented gender-reassignment surgery and transitioned into a woman. Stories about transgender people have been received rapturously over the past two years: from Orange Is the New Black’s story line about a transgender prison inmate to Transparent’s tale of a father in transition to Caitlyn Jenner’s splashy Vanity Fair cover and docuseries I Am Cait. This movie’s account of a little-known pioneer seems tailor-made for audiences–and critics–in 2015.
But when the script first landed in Hooper’s lap back in 2008, he says, it was far from commercial, and he was an unlikely candidate to make it so. At the time, he had just one feature film to his name. That changed after Hooper won an Academy Award for directing 2010’s The King’s Speech and achieved box-office success with his 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables. “Now people think it’s an obvious choice for me to have made,” he says. “It speaks to the fact that there’s been a revolution in the acceptance of trans stories.”
The Danish Girl is a thinly fictionalized retelling of the life of Elbe, a Danish painter who lived the first four decades of her life as a man named Einar Wegener. As played by Eddie Redmayne–fresh off last year’s Best Actor win at the Oscars for his role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything–Lili, while living as Einar, begins to sense that her starched collars and tailored suits are a disguise for her true identity as a woman. “Because there were no predecessors, there was no vocabulary for her to be able to negotiate what she was going through,” Redmayne says. Instead, the medical establishment pathologized her feelings–which the real Elbe described in her memoirs as the sensation of two people fighting for one body–as perverted and delusional. But with the support of her wife Gerda, played by the Swedish actor Alicia Vikander, she begins to live authentically.
Hooper was transfixed by the script–adapted by Lucinda Coxon from David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same name–which, the director says, was the first in his career to bring him to tears. Tempting as it may be to label the movie a transgender story, it’s as much a portrait of a marriage as of an unwitting trailblazer. Gerda is a working painter who has little regard for gender boundaries–it was rare for a woman at the time to work, let alone as an esteemed artist–and she’s a critical part of Lili’s journey. Through her eyes, the audience witnesses the blossoming of Lili, from a playful stand-in for one of Gerda’s portrait models into a fully realized identity, both inside and out.
“I believe she could see something even before Lili was able to dare confront it herself,” says Vikander, whose portrayal of Gerda is generating Oscar buzz, capping off a breakout year in which she’s played everything from a humanoid robot in Ex Machina to the pacifist Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Gerda, she says, was “able to see [that] above anything, the person that you love needs to be able to find a way to love themself.”
To prepare for their roles, the actors relied on interviews with transgender women and their partners, who, Redmayne says, told them without exception, “There is no question I won’t answer.” Redmayne recalls a woman named Cadence Valentine, who spoke about the fundamental need to simply be herself. “This term, to be yourself, feels like a basic human right,” Redmayne says, “yet what trans people have to battle to be themselves seems so extreme.” Valentine’s journey was in many ways enabled, like Lili’s, by “how deep her partner’s pool of empathy was.”
Vikander’s conversations with partners whose loved ones have transitioned did not yield any sweeping generalizations–“Every single story is extremely different,” she says–but she did hear one phrase so often from the partners of trans people that it became a sort of silent mantra for her Gerda: “I was transitioning too.”
The fact that Redmayne had to undergo an education at all was cause for criticism from some members of the transgender community, who would have preferred to see a trans actor cast as Lili. (Before Redmayne, Nicole Kidman was attached to the role.) It’s a frustration Redmayne readily acknowledges. “There has been a huge amount of cisgender success on the back of trans stories,” he concedes, using a recently coined term that describes people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth–in other words, people who are not transgender. But he hopes the discussion will lead to the casting of more transgender actors in not only trans but cisgender roles, as transgender actor Rebecca Root does in The Danish Girl, playing a female nurse.
In that sense, timeliness has its challenges. Telling Elbe’s story in the politically charged climate of 2015 brought with it a level of scrutiny that screenwriter Coxon says “simply wasn’t there” a decade ago. But that freedom allowed her to avoid the entanglements of identity politics and keep her focus on Lili and Gerda. As she explains, “It’s about these two women of such rare vision and courage, who have this extraordinary love story. I’ve never thought of it as ‘the transgender project.'” And as transgender stories are seen more frequently than ever before, it doesn’t have to be. In The Danish Girl, Lili doesn’t have to be an icon–she’s just a person, caught up in a love story as universal as its circumstances are specific.
This appears in the November 30, 2015 issue of TIME.