THE DANISH GIRL
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Eddie Remayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw
MPAA Rating: (for some sexuality and full nudity)
Running Time: 2:00
Release Date: 11/27/15 (limited); 12/11/15 (wider); 12/25/15 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 10, 2015
The character of Lili Elbe is not the heroine of transgender people that The Danish Girl imagines her to be. In truth, the real Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, may very well be. This is a movie, though, based on David Ebershoff's novel of historical fiction, and its version of Lili is neither sympathetic nor developed in any significant way. It's a one-note portrayal of someone dealing with and later confronting the conflict between her physical form and what she feels in regards to her identity.
Lili, born Einar Wegener, exists here to be conflicted and to go about with a one-track mind toward finding some answer to that internal identity conflict. Everything else about her, either while she is living as Einar or after her decision to live as Lili, is secondary to her confusion about who she is. The movie spends so much time explaining that same point over and over again that it not only becomes redundant but also undermines the supposed triumph of Lili's eventual transition.
The character, played by Eddie Redmayne, begins as Einar, a successful painter of landscapes (In something of a metaphor, he is repeatedly working on the same landscape, remembered from his childhood, trying to get the details just right). Einar is married to Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), a painter of portraits who does not have the same level of respect or popularity as her husband. The two are happy together, living and working in Copenhagen in 1926, and are working on having a baby.
Their relationship is the core of the story, and it's a core that ultimately feels one-sided. Part of that is intentional, of course. As Einar slowly moves more toward the person he believes he is, it is inevitable that the relationship with Gerda will suffer as a result. What sets the two characters apart is how the movie presents their individual reactions to that eventuality. The portrayal of Gerda here is rich, detailing the conflict within her love for Einar, which is simultaneously selfish—in wanting their marriage to stay as it is—and selfless—in understanding that she cannot deny him potential happiness. Einar, on the other hand, remains a constant in terms of selfishness, even after accepting Lili as an identity.
At first, the identity of Lili is brought about as an accident of sorts. Gerda has Einar dress in stockings and ballet shoes to continue working on a painting of their friend Ulla (Amber Heard). In telltale fashion, director Tom Hooper focuses on Einar's gaze as he stares at his legs and caresses the dress that his wife has draped over him. As often as Einar later states that he has always felt this way, the visual conceit of things snapping into place for him in that moment is unavoidable. It's the beginning of a rudimentary verbal and visual approach to the character's conflict, which extends to Einar pantomiming the gestures of random women on the street and speaking about Lili in the third person.
Later, Lili becomes a joke between husband and wife, as Gerda encourages Einar to dress as a woman for a formal ball, where he meets and receives an unwanted kiss from Henrik (Ben Whishaw). If the movie's presentation of Lili's gender identity is simplified, it's portrayal of her sexuality is non-existent. Mentions of a possibly romantic childhood encounter with a male friend (who appears in the movie's present as another confidant played by Matthias Schoenaerts, seem to exist to inform us of what Einar is not, instead of illuminating what he is. Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon play things safe to the point that a lot about Lili remains unclear.
The result is that Gerda unintentionally becomes the more intriguing character of the pair. As shown here, there is, surprisingly, more struggle on her end—to reconcile her love for another person and how that love means she must let go of that person—than there is on Lili's. Everything about Gerda's story has its roots in a genuine emotional strife, and Vikander's performance taps into pain and confusion of what supporting the person she loves will ultimately mean for her.
Everything about Einar and, later, Lili's story is a matter of circumstances. No one at the time really understands the plight, and much time is given to others attempting to "cure" Einar (diagnoses of mental illness that require institutionalization and, for curious and unknowable reasons, radiation treatment of his genitals). Einar switches between himself and Lili in transparently melodramatic ways, and Redmayne's performance has the quality of a quiet martyr instead of an actual person.
Lili comes across as more of an idea than a character here. That idea, not the person, is what the movie wants us to sympathize with and understand. Such qualities do arrive in The Danish Girl, albeit late and only briefly, as Lili spends her first days as a woman in public, working at a store and befriending her co-workers. It's a small, happy victory amidst a sea of such pain and misery that one starts to wonder if Hooper and Coxon have accidentally start selling a narrative of warning instead of one of inspiration.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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