The Danish Girl (2015)
Find the courage to be yourself.
In an era of increasing social acceptance The Danish Girl seems to have arrived at precisely the right time. Based on the 2000 fictional novel (of the same name) by American writer David Ebershoff — loosely inspired by the lives of Danish painters Lili Ilse Elvenes aka Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener — the film explores the remarkable story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people in the world to have undergone sex reassignment surgery. While the material gives its star Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything (2014), a chance to deliver yet another transformative performance, the overall flick amounts to nothing other than a dull, derivative bore, which is a bit of a let down really, given its rather fascinating subject matter.
Directed by Tom Hooper, the guy who gave us The King’s Speech (2010), which was great, and then the lavish, overproduced Les Misérables (2012), which was eh … not so great, The Danish Girl is set in Copenhagen, 1926. When we first meet Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), they’re a happily married couple still in the ‘honeymoon’ stage of their marriage, six years in. Einar is a respected landscape artist while Gerda is finding it difficult to achieve any level of recognition as a portrait painter. Things begin to change when Gerda coaxes her husband into standing in for a portrait session when her friend, the bohemian ballerina Ulla (Amber Heard), fails to show up as a model for a painting on deadline. Being the good companion that he is, Einar fills in, dons the dress, slippers and stockings but in the process unmasks what turns out to be his truest self, a female named Lili Elbe.
Playing a bit of a game, the socially withdrawn Einar keeps dressing as the scarlet haired Lili, (whom constantly he refers to in the third person), with his wife passing her off as Einar’s cousin from the countryside. In any case, the experience sets off a progression of sorts, (first tentative and then irreversible), one that compels Lili to leave her identity as Einar behind in order to live out the rest of her days as a woman.
Just like the film’s protagonists, its clear that director Hooper has an acute eye for composition and detail, (The Danish Girl is littered with beautiful shots of Denmark and its surrounding locations), but the entire flick is awfully underwritten. You see, the character of Lili has been sloppily assembled from a number of familiar queer cinema motifs — Lili drools over articles of feminine clothing for instance and is later the subject of foreseeable shame by the disapproving towns folk. Hooper even throws in a couple of those tired cross-dressing ‘gags’ we’ve all no doubt seen countless times before from characters such as Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie or Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis from Some like It Hot (1959). Granted, Hooper’s biographical drama should have really gone deeper — we needed to understand what it felt like to be a transgender woman living in Europe in 1926 — a period when such a thing was seen as perverted or a sign of clinical insanity. A couple of moments do show potential; an early scene where Einar visits a peepshow in Paris and mimics a whore’s ladylike movements from behind the tainted glass really shows Lili’s anguish while a later sequence that sees Lili working at a department store after her operation (just being herself and interacting with the other women) is lovely as it signifies exactly why her procedure was necessary; these high points stirring empathy from patrons and suggesting what could have been.
It’s safe to say I’m not the biggest Eddie Redmayne fan around — I thought his performance in Jupiter Ascending (2015) was downright awful and found his character in Les Misérables (2012) to be utterly annoying. Without any preconceived bias getting in the way, I went into The Danish Girl with an open mind (particularly after Redmayne’s Oscar win for 2014’s The Theory of Everything), however his rendering of Lili felt somewhat awkward and coy, his eyes constantly downcast with a dreary Redmayne mumbling his dialogue in a monotone tempo (yawn) — at least he looked the part!
The exquisite Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina (2015), on the other hand fares better than her co-star with the 27-year-old portraying Einar’s wife Gerda Wegener, a devoted woman who’s grappling with the very idea of her husband’s suppressed femininity, a notion we’ve just recently began to openly speak about — one’s gender being at odds with that of their body. Given the ‘conventional’ screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, Wild Target (2010), Vikander still manages to display signs of anguish and confusion with her character choosing to support the person she loves even if it means erasing their life together; a little more focus on Gerda would have made for a compelling detour. On a side note, while both Vikander and Redmayne share top billing, the flick’s title could essentially be referring to either protagonist, although I’d say it’s hinting towards the latter.
The rest of the movie’s co-stars are shrug worthy at best. Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone (2012), is charming but sorta redundant as art dealer Hans Axgil, Einar’s childhood friend who also happens to be the first boy he ever kissed, while Ben Whishaw, Spectre (2015), pops up as Henrik, an admirer of Lili’s who utters the clumsy phrase, ‘You’re different from most girls.’ Last but not least, Sebastian Koch, The Lives of Others (2006), does the best that he can as Dr. Kurt Warnekros, the man who ultimately agrees to operate on Lili. Albeit the untested two-part medical procedure — Lili’s external genitalia is first removed then, after a recovery period, she’s given a vagina — is merely glossed over by the filmmakers, too afraid of shocking or offending viewers.
In terms of its cinematic canvas, The Danish Girl is an absolute triumph. Hooper’s long-time cinematographer Danny Cohen, The King’s Speech (2010), brings the film to life with soft blue interiors and a warm northern light while the costumes by Paco Delgado, Les Misérables (2012), are both respectful and elegant, Delgado emphasizing Lili’s individuality whilst adhering to the Edwardian fashion of that era.
Trading its ideas of gender and sexuality for a melodramatic, unorthodox ‘love story,’ The Danish Girl plays it far too safe to truly open people’s minds or offer any unique insights on its progressive premise. Had this been released a decade or so earlier then perhaps it could have made for a more broad-minded piece, but being 2015 the film’s surface level views feel wearily underwhelming. I guess sure, it may look as pretty as a picture but Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl is about as hollow as a mannequin’s grin.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
The Danish Girl is released through Universal Pictures Australia