The Danish Girl
Directed by Tom Hooper
(1st January 2016 UK / 22nd January US – Working Title Films, Artemis Productions, Kvinde Films, Shelter Prod, Pretty Pictures, ReVision Pictures, Taxshelter. be, Le Tax Shelter du Gouvernement Fédéral de Belgique, Copenhagen Film Fund, Senator Global Productions)
Written by Lucinda Coxen
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts & Amber Heard
Synopsis: A fictitious love story loosely inspired by the lives of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.
Is it possible to personally dislike a film’s spinelessness, but still admire the fact that it was made, if only because it will serve as an important empathetic stepping stone for less informed members of our society? Say what you will about the talents of director Tom Hooper, but he could have chosen to make his latest Oscar bait film about a myriad of different, more obviously palatable subjects. While The Danish Girl will never compare to the authentic transgender experience that you can find in films like Tangerine, for many more discerning viewers this may be their first exposure to this weighty subject matter.
Of course, The Danish Girl is made primarily with this older, less tolerant audience always in mind, so much of the film’s handling of Lili Elbe’s (Eddie Redmayne) story is shot through this prism: filing away all the potentially uncomfortable edges to present a film that is both impeccably designed and beautifully shot, but indelicate to its subject matter. Much like 2014′s The Imitation Game, The Danish Girl cowers behind its attractive period setting and, aside from one surprising full frontal nudity scene involving tucking, does its best to avoid the prickly nature of its largely misunderstood, and socially ostracised focus.
Beginning life as acclaimed Danish painter Einar Wegener, Lili Else Elvenes (more commonly known as Lili Elbe) is one of the first identifiable transgender women to ever undergo sex reassignment surgery (now given the more progressive title “gender confirmation surgery”), which is certainly a life story worth telling, but Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxen are less concerned with her actual life, and more interested in wringing out a more conventional narrative, truth be damned. This makes the film more digestible for its intended audience, but it misrepresents crucial aspects of her important story. For one, it’s based on David Ebershoff‘s heavily-fictionalised account of her life, yet it still purports to tell her true story, which stretches the limitations of credibility in a genre that is known for fudging the details.
Regardless, The Danish Girl revolves around the marriage of Einar and Gerda Wegener (the ever prolific Alicia Vikander), both painters, as he comes to terms with his true self, and how it affects their relationship. Beginning as Einar putting on dresses and wigs to act as Gerda’s muse, Lili is awakened not as a lingering emotional need, but as an entirely skin deep one. This is the first of many times where the camera hones in on Redmayne, dancing across his body as he fondles dresses with an almost fetishistic urgency. There’s an incorrect notion that transgender women are just men that love to wear women’s clothing, and unfortunately The Danish Girl does very little to dispel that falsehood. Redmayne’s performance here (and throughout) is completely external, with zero depth. Much like in The Theory Of Everything he does a superb impression of what he thinks a transgender woman should be; fawning over himself in mirrors and affecting stereotypical feminine ticks and gestures constantly, but never getting into what makes the character tick. It’s a performance that is at times frustrating, but there’s no denying that the actor is committed to it, and technically hits all of the required beats perfectly – it’s just an entirely inappropriate and beguiling approach to the material.
Or is it? After all, The Danish Girl is only interested in the surface level, never threatening to offend audience members with fragile sensibilities, and in that respect Redmayne is successful. As a film that attempts to bridge a cultural gap between less tolerant individuals and a subsect of our society, it could be argued that the film accomplishes its goals, at least in terms of providing easily digestible empathy, regardless of how accurate it may be. In fact, the film chooses to frame its central issue in the Be True To Yourself model of prestige cinema, more akin to the gurning simplicity of Forrest Gump than a transcendent transgender tale for the masses.
Appropriately, the real strengths of The Danish Girl emanate from its silky skin. The costume design and period dressing is immaculate, the cinematography by Danny Cohen mimics the painterly beauty of its central artists, and Alexandre Desplat‘s score is melodramatic and gorgeous, often deployed with all the subtlety of a freight train to the skull, bludgeoning any semblance of emotion from the audience to cover up for the limp thematic material. When the strings begin to surge from nowhere, that’s the part where you’re supposed to really feel something.
Vikander is excellent, serving as the prism through which the audience is supposed to relate as she watches her husband become Lili. Her role is under-written (in reality, Gerda abandoned Lili long before the end), but Vikander rises to the challenge, proving infinitely more empathetic than Redmayne, despite a pretty thankless role. The enviable talents of both Ben Whishaw and Matthias Schoenaerts are wasted, deployed as fictional third wheels (to Lili and Gerda, respectively) to inject drama into the central relationship. Unfortunately they largely fall flat and draw unnecessary focus away from the pivotal pair.
It all culminates in a staggeringly mawkish way that frankly feels patently ridiculous even when compared to many of its contemporaries. Lili tragically passed away in real life months after her fourth surgery after her body rejected her newly implanted uterus. In the film she spends an accelerated time as a woman after her first surgery, which apparently means quitting painting and slathering make-up on other women at a beauty boutique. Then, after her second surgery she dies on a chaises lounge overlooking the lake while Gerda sits there and talks to her. Pale as a sheet, she says her final worlds and dramatically closes her eyes as the sledgehammer of sumptuous scoring smashes into your forehead, right on cue. Then, Gerda and Hans (Schoenaerts) go and stand dramatically on the edge of a wonderful cliff vista, just as Gerda’s scarf is swept away by a forceful gust of wind (a scarf that has been passed between Lili and Gerda throughout the film). Hans runs to catch it, but she stops him and excitedly cries “No! Let her be free!”. Cue the music.
It feels astonishingly tone deaf, but not surprising. After all, when Lili’s story is stripped down to its (mostly fictional) bare parts, you rob her of all the intricacies that informed her complex identity. To the filmmakers, she is literally just a piece of flimsy fabric; one that the audience play tug of war with throughout – do they understand this person’s plight? Should they? Could they? One that enables the story they want to tell, irrespective of whether its the story that defined her life. If anything it’s overzealous, with the bordering-on-absurd repeated framing of mirrors and multiple doorways to symbolise the internal conflict of Lili. Instead of producing an authentic performance, we’re treated to continuous images of Redmayne gawking at himself in reflective surfaces, running his hands all over his body, attributing transgenderism to physical dysphoria – and that’s really what The Danish Girl is: a sumptuous visual treat, created by people less interested in Lili’s actual story and more interested in lining their own coffers with more trophies from their excitable peers.
This review may seem overly harsh, but it’s fair to say that The Danish Girl achieves the goals that it sets out to achieve, and will likely be a crowd-pleaser for those that enjoy a solid prestige picture. While not entirely ignoble in its creation, The Danish Girl is definitely not the mainstream knight in shining armour for the transgender movement that it purports to be, although if it does anything to change even a single heart or mind then it will have justified its own existence. The Danish Girl is not a saviour, or particularly enlightening, but at least it was made by people that do, in their own way, care about the issues. We should just expect better of them.