The Danish Girl (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some sexuality and full nudity
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon (based on the book by David Ebershoff)
Review published December 27, 2015
Transgendered landscape painter Einar Wegener and his transition into a woman named Lili Elbe provides the basis of this sumptuously filmed drama, important because it is one of the first sex reassignment surgeries to be performed that would change the male sex organs into that of a woman. Set mostly in Copenhagen of the 1920s, we find Einar (Redmayne, Jupiter Ascending) married to a less successful portrait painter, Gerda (Vikander, Burnt), who asks her husband to pose in women's dress and stockings to that she may finish a portrait of a ballerina. The moment becomes an epiphany for Einar, who soon begins to dress in Gerda's clothing, and even begins attending public functions as Lili Elbe, Einar's cousin (in real life, Lili would often claim to be Einar's sister). Soon after, Einar begins to feel that Lili is who he really is all along, despite the pleas of his suffering wife, and aims to make the transformation into a woman complete by undergoing a complicated and still experimental surgery in France to finally become Lil in every detail.
Gorgeously photographed by Danny Cohen (Room, Pirate Radio), finely scored by Alexandre Desplat (Unbroken, The Imitation Game), adeptly directed by Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The King's Speech), and impeccably acted by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl's main problem is that it tries to do too many things perfectly, presumably for awards considerations, that it fails to pay enough attention to its character details in order to make us moved by Einar's journey to becoming Lili. Narrative beats are checked off as expected, as Lili's very first public appearance immediately draws amorous eyes from the men, mainly represented by Pepe-Le-Pew-like suitor Henrik (Whishaw, In the Heart of the Sea), who is desperate to start a relationship with Lili. Though Redmayne's features do have a certain androgynous quality about them, Hooper is astute enough to realize that he wouldn't quite pass as a woman for most who view Lili, who still looks like a man playing dress-up. There's no surprise on the part of Henrik, who seems to know exactly what he's getting himself into.
The most interesting of elements that the story dabbles with but doesn't fully explore is the relationship of acceptance on the part of Gerda for her husband's transformation. Gerda stands by while her husband begins to gradually disappear into nothingness, and in his place come Lili, a woman who wants to find her own path in life. It's a storyline that would appear to be rife with tragedy for the suffering wife, but, despite Vikander always appearing conflicted, we don't really understand what her angle is initially in encouraging her husband's cross-dressing display, or why she would willingly participate in her husband's metaphorical death. In several ways, the story follows a similar arc to another film starring Eddie Redmayne as someone who transforms physically while a long-suffering wife takes care of his needs, The Theory of Everything, which also has a side-plot romantic story for the wife to temper the fact that her husband would rather find other lovers. It should be noted that, in real life, Gerda Wegener is thought to be a lesbian or bisexual who preferred living with Lili rather than Einar, though the film removes any inkling of this entirely, probably to sell it to the masses, even though it would have made the story far more interesting.
The Danish Girl is adapted by Lucinda Coxon (Wild Target, The Heart of Me) from the 2000 fictionalized novel account by David Ebershoff, sanded out of all of its edges in order to deliver a pleasing film for the masses without much struggle, either internally or externally, that would make the character arc of Einar/Lili interesting or relatable. While psychiatrists and other doctors find that Einar is likely to be either schizophrenic or chemically imbalanced, resulting in radiation experiments and attempts to lock him away in a sanitarium, where the film actually fails is in convincing us that Lili isn't the result of a psychological schism.
While many in the transgender community are a different gender than the sex organs they are born with would indicate, we aren't shown Einar to be anything other than a man who always has felt he is a man until he slowly develops a penchant, spurned on by Gerda, for dressing as a woman over time until he thinks that Lili is who he was meant to be all along. Other than a childhood kiss with another boy named Hans, uninitiated by Einar, we get no clues that he ever had these feelings before, and with Lili's feminine look being given to her by Gerda, and her name given to her by a dancer friend named Ulla, the film makes it seem like Einar never really had these thoughts before someone planted them in his head, leaving it ambiguous as to where and when Lili came into existence, despite Hooper and Coxon's insistence that everything Einar/Lili is undergoing is perfectly straightforward and 'normal'.
It's an irony that a person who was willing to take such daring steps in life would be so conventional, but The Danish Girl takes a remarkable story and treats it as if we should think it's as commonplace as anything we might experience in our own lives. That the filmmakers bend over backwards to instill within us the notion that there's nothing unusual about Lile Elbe or her journey has rendered the story as essentially mundane, which negates the need for the film to exist to begin with. As such, the film never delves into the psychological or physiological reasons why Einar is replaced Lili, doubling down on the notion of, "Just because, that's all, and don't be curious," which means that all The Danish Girl becomes is a checklist of mostly fictionalized events in the lives of Einar, Lili and Gerda.
If you like pretty and talented actors performing scenes in front of beautiful architecture and elegant, well manicured gardens, The Danish Girl is a story of a severe struggle that is diligently polished with consummate skill in order such that it doesn't feel like much of a struggle at all. Though not a bad film on most measures, it's also not as inspiring as it thinks; the real story of these three characters would probably be much more interesting than the commercialized one presented in both book and film.
©2015 Vince Leo