The Danish Girl has a timely premise – the story of one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery at a time when it was extremely dangerous and much of society held deep prejudices. By all rights it should make for a compelling and important film, especially in the hands of recent Oscar-winners Tom Hooper (Best Director for The King’s Speech) and Eddie Redmayne (Best Actor for The Theory of Everything).
And while it does feature some stellar acting and inspired production design, it often feels bloodless; a disappointing let down for a film that should hit the zeitgeist but misses its mark by telling its tale from a cold remove. For a film that’s meant to examine the fluidity of gender and breaking out of traditional roles, it’s remarkably safe and unwilling to truly get inside its character’s heads.
The Danish Girl begins with a shot of Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) admiring her husband Einar (Eddie Redmayne) from across a crowded room. His slight and angular features are almost feminine and as a renowned painter he attracts much attention in 1920’s Copenhagen. Gerda plays second-fiddle to her more successful husband, eking out a career in his shadow as they revel in being young and in love.
An awakening occurs for the both of them when Gerda’s model fails to show and she asks Einar to pose as a woman for a portrait. The awkward and introverted Einar initially refuses but then acquiesces, finding comfort and arousal in stockings and a dress. Perhaps channelling that sense of discovery and freedom, Gerda finally finds a muse to push her to new artistic heights.
An alter-ego quickly forms, as Einar begins dressing as “Lili Elbe” increasingly often, eventually venturing out as Lili and even having a romantic tryst with local poet Henrik (Ben Wishaw). It quickly becomes clear that Lili Elbe is Einar’s true self, and to present as Einar is spirit crushing. Gerda is loving and progressive, but feels herself growing alienated from Lili, especially as Lili uses her new identity to explain away infidelity.
That kind of emotional deflection proves convenient for Lili, as she gets to explore a newfound freedom while Gerda grows distant from the man she loved. It’s made more difficult by the general public’s inability to accept Lili’s transition, as even in artistic circles people little experience with trans people . The Danish Girl then becomes a story about finding yourself while losing those closest to you, and what the limits of love are.
Redmayne again proves chameleonic in the role of Einar/Lili, portraying the male-to-female transition both emotionally and physically. Lili models her movements on the socialites she sees at parties and runs wild through a playhouse, finally free to be a woman. It’s a tender, delicate performance that is sometimes exploited by uneven direction – a scene where Lili dresses in front of a full length mirror seems designed to provoke – with Redmayne always acquitting himself well even when the movie can’t rise to meet him.
Lili’s ostensibly the lead of The Danish Girl (the title comes from Gerda’s explanation of Lili’s frequent appearances as a model in her portraits) but Gerda’s story gets just as much screen time. In fact, Alicia Vikander steals the show in a performance that’s more nuanced than Redmayne’s and almost conveys more heartbreak by proxy. Lili seems to have a British spirit in that she often suffers in silence (unfortunately by necessity much of the time), but the strong-willed Gerda makes no secret of her feelings and desires.
It’s a bold move to make Lili selfish at times and the movie benefits from not glossing over character flaws. Sexuality and gender identity are mixed up in Lili’s transition though the movie is often content to play at a surface level, perhaps not wanting to make assumptions of a real person’s desires. That leads to a half-baked love triangle between Gerda, Lili and Einar’s boyhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) that goes nowhere, and many similar scenes of Gerda growing frustrated with Lili but refusing to leave her side or truly seek out a life of her own.
The tragedy is that so much of what Lili does is secret, whispered between her and Gerda or cloistered away in an apartment. As they move to Paris and Lili is suppressed she begins to wither and grow ill. It leads down a path of numerous ignorant doctors (many of whom with medieval views on trans people, as Lili has to escape out a window or face imprisonment at one point) and eventually one who’s willing to perform a male-to-female sex reassignment surgery for Lili. This presents a considerable risk to Lili’s health, but it’s not seen as a choice but rather a necessity despite the newness and danger of the procedure.
After using extreme close-ups in Les Misérables Tom Hooper does the opposite here, often filming at a distance in medium and long shots that are carefully framed to evoke the painterly compositions of the time. The idea is sound in theory but leads to a remove in practice, painting a Copenhagen and Paris that are gorgeous but staid, sparsely populated and devoid of the thrumming life that they surely must have buzzed with.
That lack of life permeates the film, which becomes repetitive and overlong as the movie treads the same ground. The ending falls flat, finally succumbing to treacly cliché in a succession of scenes that severely overreach and wildly miss their target. It’s abrupt and nearly insulting, a sour note on a movie that had been merely middlebrow up to that point. As a cautionary tale of compassion and acceptance, Lili Elbe’s story deserves far better than the treatment given here.
The Danish Girl (2015)
Director: Tom Hooper
Runtime: 120 minutes