The Danish Girl is a handsomely-crafted, tastefully made film about an important subject, but it's lacking a crucial element: honesty. The film tells the story of Lili Elbe, a transgender woman who was one of the early recipients of sex reassignment surgery. The film demonstrates a considerable amount of sympathy for Lili and details her journey with delicacy and tenderness, but it softens the edges of the world she lived in to such a striking degree that the film ends up feeling too much like a good-hearted fantasy. By softening and burying much of the suffering Lili undoubtedly endured, the film reduces the significance of her struggle.
Before we're introduced to Lili, we spend a little time with her original identity. Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything) is a successful painter who is happily married to fellow artist Gerda (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina). The latter hasn't had as much financial success as the former, but they're both quite good at what they do (Einar specializes in landscapes, while Gerda prefers to focus on portraits). One day, Gerda ask Einar to stand in for the female model she's supposed to paint. She'll paint the model's face later, but she asks Einar wear the model's shoes, stockings and dress. He resists at first, but finally agrees to accept the embarrassing task he's been handed. Then, without warning, something clicks... and Lili emerges.
Initially, Lili is treated as something of a party gag. Gerda is amused by how convincing her husband looks as a woman, so she helps him dress up, takes him out in public and introduces him to people as her husband's cousin. What she doesn't realize is that her husband no longer exists. Though Lili tries valiantly to go back to being Einar when the fun and games are done, the old identity no longer fits. “When I dream, they're Lili's dreams,” she confesses.
In the film's most buzzed-about scene, Redmayne stands in front a mirror, tucks his penis between his legs and gazes upon Lili's reflection with admiration and wonder. It's a striking moment of sincere, heartfelt beauty; a scene of empathetic discovery that aims to undo the effects of the similar, crudely-employed imagery of The Silence of the Lambs (a terrific thriller that has nonetheless been justifiably criticized for the harmful transgender stereotypes it indulges). Unfortunately, it's one of the few moments in which Lili feels like a real, vulnerable, human character.
Part of the problem is Redmayne's performance, which is too mannered and artificial. As in The Theory of Everything, he's clearly putting a tremendous amount of effort into the performance, but he never quite manages to disappear into the role because you're always aware of the fact that he is Acting. His commitment to his craft is admirable, but he doesn't let the audience meet him halfway – he puts every bit of emotional subtext right there on the surface. However, the bigger issue is that Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (working from a historical novel by David Ebershoff) are more interested in turning Lili into an inspirational icon than presenting her as a convincing character. Scene after scene feels like a “For Your Consideration” clip, as the character is dragged down by dialogue that leans much too heavily on sentimental platitudes.
Alternately, there's nothing disappointing about Alicia Vikander's turn as Gerda, which turns out to be the best thing about the film. Gerda's lines aren't a whole lot better than Lili's, but Vikander's performance is a nuanced portrait of a woman who is forced to come to terms with some challenging truths. She is supportive and loving, but there's no denying that she is losing the man she fell in love with. Vikander subtly captures every shade of Gerda's complex, evolving emotions, and is responsible for almost all of the film's strongest moments. That's almost a problem for the film as a whole: in an ideal version of this movie, Lili's journey would generate the biggest impact, but The Danish Girl often ends up feeling like Gerda's story. Still, that's no reason to knock Vikander for once again demonstrating that she deserves to be the next big thing.
Even in the modern world, many transgender people often lose relationships with close friends and family members during the transition process. As such, it's a little surprising to see the relative warmth and acceptance demonstrated by most of the important figures in Lili's life. She receives support from Gerda, from her childhood best friend (Matthias Schoenarts, Far From the Madding Crowd), from the surgeon (Sebastian Koch, The Lives of Others) who ultimately operates on her, from the gay man (Ben Whishaw, Spectre) who becomes a valuable confidant and from the free-spirited dancer (Amber Heard, The Rum Diary) who gives Lili her name. There are initial moments of hesitation, but all of these characters ultimately choose to love Lili for who exactly who she is. That's admirable, and you can see the intent behind it: the filmmakers seek to make something that is still heavily stigmatized feel natural and normal. I would contend that it's possible (and necessary) to do this without viewing the story through rose-colored glasses.
Admittedly, there are moments of persecution and cruelty in the film. There's a sequence in which Lili is attacked by a pair of bigoted bullies, and a handful of conversations with doctors who suggest a variety of inhumane “cures.” However, these characters are one-dimensional sketches who enter and exit very quickly, as if giving such distasteful people too much consideration or screen time will damage the film's polished, classical beauty. The movie goes out of its away to avoid feeling too unpleasant, and its closing moments ignore a sad historical truth in favor of serving up a shamelessly sentimental, artificial ending. I understand the impulse to make the movie as accessible to mainstream audiences as possible, but in this case, doing so means turning a potentially gripping, challenging story into something vanilla.
It's disappointing to see Hooper continue his downward arc as a director – with each new feature, he seems to be trying a little bit harder to earn another round of awards, and the films are starting to suffer as a result. His HBO miniseries John Adams took potentially dusty, overfamiliar historical subject matter and made it feel vital, present and alive. In The Danish Girl, he tackles a profoundly relevant subject that has rarely been explored in mainstream cinema, yet somehow delivers a film that feels stifled and conventional. It's a very pretty movie (attractive actors, lavish production design, a swoon-inducing Alexandre Desplat score) and Vikander is sensational, but like so many Oscar-friendly historical dramas, it feels as if it's unfolding within the confines of a glass case in a museum.
The Danish Girl
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Year: 2015