Directed by: Tom Hooper.
Written by: Lucinda Coxon based on the novel by David Ebershoff.
Starring: Eddie Redmayne (Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe), Alicia Vikander (Gerda Wegener), Matthias Schoenaerts (Hans Axgil), Ben Whishaw (Henrik), Sebastian Koch (Warnekros), Amber Heard (Ulla), Adrian Schiller (Rasmussen).
There is a giant hole in the center of Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, which really sinks the entire movie. Hooper is a fine surface director – which is why he’s a good choice for a film like Les Miserables, where characters literally sing their feelings for three hours, yet he struggles somewhat with interior pain and struggle. Unfortunately, that is what The Danish Girl is about – a Danish painter named Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), who apparently lived a happy, and fulfilled life as a heterosexual man until he’s in his 30s, before he “discovers” that he is transgender – and decides that he wants to become a woman renaming herself Lili Elbe. This causes, obviously, problems with his marriage to Gerda (Alicia Vickander) – who nevertheless loves her husband enough to support her decision to become a woman, and therefore no longer be her husband. This is a movie about both of them – and the internal pain they both struggle with. Redmayne and Vickander try – valiantly – to make these characters believable, but never quite manage it. The film looks beautiful – Hooper is clearly going for a painterly quality to the look of the film, and while he doesn’t come close to the genius level work done by Mike Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope on last year’s Mr. Turner – it’s not bad either. But the film remains only skin deep – which is its fatal misstep.
The film takes place in Denmark in the 1920s – with Einar being one of the most celebrated landscape painters in the country (the fact that he paints variations on the same landscape again and again doesn’t seem to bother anyone). Gerda makes her living painting portraits –and hasn’t found the same level of success – but not for lack of talent, but for lack of the right subject. Einar’s transition into Lili starts innocently enough – when Gerda asks him to model a ballet ensemble for him for a portrait of their friend, Ulla (Amber Heard), that she is work on. You can see in Einar’s face when he feels the material, that he enjoys it more than he thought. Then, Einar and Gerda take the joke farther and farther – dressing Einar up as a woman and going to a party – where they introduce him as Lili, Einar’s cousin. For Gerda, this is only a game, for Einar, it is the start of something deeper – a change that has always been inside him (as the movie, eventually, makes clear) although he’s kept it buried. But now, he cannot do that any longer. She is Lili now, and she will do anything to make her change permanent – including risking her life to do dangerous, untested surgery.
The real problem with The Danish Girl is that we never truly understand Einar/Lili – how she feels, why she’s willing to risk her life in order to completely become Lili. The early scenes are strange, the film gives no hint that Einar struggles at all in his life as a heterosexual man (in fact, his sexual relationship with his wife seems rather robust), which all of sudden stops on a dime when he puts on a dress. The movie will double back, and make it clear that this is something Einar has experiences since he was a child – but it’s not something the movie ever really shows us –just tells us. Lili makes several speeches to Gerda about why she must do this – but they don’t amount to much more than “I must”. Redmayne gives it his all, but there’s little to work with here. Vikander fares much better, because the screenplay understands her feelings more – how she is willing to sacrifice what she wants, for the man she loves – even if that means giving him up completely. It’s odd that we have a movie about a transgender woman whose main character his her suffering wife (and yes, Vikander is the lead in the film, no matter what the Oscar campaign around her says).
The Danish Girl ends up playing everything far too safely – it never really wants to delve into any areas that may make anyone in the audience uncomfortable – so it’s a rather chaste, dull affair. Compare this to Tangerine from earlier this year – which starred two real trans women in a story about their life in the seedier areas of L.A., which is about their lives, the good and bad, and it’s a stark contrast. Tangerine understands its main characters, and that comes across throughout the film. The Danish Girl doesn’t – which is why it’s a highly polished, but dull bore of a film.