While no civil rights issue is truly over, some are more pressing than others, and the rights of transgender people is one we’ll all have to accept and should accept. And acceptance can only come through love, compassion, and understanding, and Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl attempts to provide all three. Based on the true story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to get gender reassignment surgery, Hooper approaches the narrative with the utmost tenderness and care, as if the issue will explode if handled incorrectly (which isn’t an entirely unreasonable assumption). It makes Danish Girl feel exquisite yet fragile, but it holds together thanks to its powerhouse lead performances from Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander as long as Hooper remembers that this isn’t a story about “them” or “the other”, but about all of us. It’s schmaltzy to be sure (especially at the end), but the movie’s tender heart is in the right place.
Einar Wegener (Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Vikander) work as artists in Copenhagen in 1926. Einar has found success painting landscapes, but Gerda is still struggling to be discovered with her portrait work. When they’re invited to a friend’s party, they decide as a joke to dress Einar up as a woman, and pretend that he’s his fictional cousin “Lili”. However, this little game awakens something deep within Einar, and he can’t stop wanting to be Lili even after the party. As Einar moves closer to becoming Lili, Gerda wrestles with how to support her husband even though supporting him will ultimately mean losing Einar to his new identity.
While the title may seem to refer to Lili, for most of the movie, The Danish Girl refers to Gerda as well, and it’s the better for focusing on both characters. If the movie were solely about Einar’s transition to Lili, it would isolate him and make him “the other,” and it would reduce The Danish Girl to a history lesson about transgender people. If it only focused on Gerda, then a transgender character only exists to educate a cisgender person. The trick of Lucinda Coxon’s script is reframing Lili Elbe’s tale as a love story and letting that serve both characters.
However, as the film goes on, the script has trouble navigating the balance between the Einar and Gerda, and it begins to wander as neither is sure of how to proceed. Doctors think Einar is insane, Gerda doesn’t want to lose her husband, but they both know that the right thing to do is to let Einar complete his transition and become Lili. The film wanders in its second half, and while the transformation of Einar and Gerda’s relationship is necessary, it removes some of the strength from the overall narrative to the point where Gerda has to pointedly tell Einar (and the audience), “Not everything is about you.”
It’s a shame that the second half lacks the strength of the first because not only are the two characters great together, but also it also explores gender roles in a thoughtful way. Hooper touches on Gerda’s powerful feminine gaze as it relates to her art, and Einar, in his first outing as Lili, discovers how drastically different his place is as a woman when interacting with men. The Danish Girl doesn’t dive into the complexity and fluidity of gender roles or the power of the masculine or feminine gaze, but the inclusion of these issues makes it clear that Hooper understands a transgender story presents unique aspects as opposed to a generalized civil rights tale.
And while I’m sure other films will deal with gender roles as they relate to trans issues, Hooper is content to promote peace, love, and understanding with his extremely palatable film. Everything is lovingly shot and scored as if the subject matter is already primed to upset the audience if even a hair is out of place. Hooper carefully paints by numbers with immaculate framing and gorgeous production design, and it feels like the film is fighting to win over people who might reject trans people out of hand. The thinking seems to be that if the package is pretty enough, people will warm to what’s on the inside.
As a country, we’re still at the “education” level when it comes to transgender, and while Danish Girl never becomes pedantic, it does feel almost gratingly self-aware. I admire that it doesn’t want to offend, but sometimes it goes too far in the opposite direction and can be maddeningly self-conscious, especially near the end when the story becomes somewhat mawkish. Only Redmayne and Vikander’s towering performances keep the film from teetering into Oscar-bait self-parody.
The Danish Girl further exemplifies what makes Redmayne not just a talented actor, but what makes him a unique actor. Paired with his Oscar-winning performance from The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl shows Redmayne as an actor who speaks volumes with his body and his eyes. Granted, those are tools of any great actor, but Redmayne always comes off like he’s using every resource available to him without chewing the scenery. He speaks volumes when his eyes light up at the mere memory of being Lili; every movement seems precise and considered.
For Vikander, The Danish Girl is a capper on a breakout year for her. It’s tough to say which performance is better—this or Ex Machina—but The Danish Girl is just as much her movie as it is Redmayne’s, and she has to navigate a distinctive emotional minefield. Gerda’s love for her husband means that he’ll disappear. It takes an astounding well of compassion and strength to tell someone you love that they would be better off as someone else, but Vikander pulls it off with maturity and a surprising blend of vulnerability and fortitude.
It seems silly that we need a movie about the importance of showing love towards people who are different, and the immediacy of The Danish Girl reflects poorly on our standing as a society, although the film’s existence also shows that we’re slowly getting better. Ten years ago, I wasn’t even aware of the term “cisgender”, and I went to Oberlin, which is about as liberal as a liberal art college can be. While we still have a long way to go when it comes to transgender education, The Danish Girl is a well-meaning, well-considered, and well-taken step.
Click here for all of our TIFF 2015 coverage thus far or peruse links to our reviews below:
- 45 Years
- Black Mass
- Green Room
- I Smile Back
- Kill Your Friends
- The Lobster
- The Martian