The Danish Girl Moves On Autopilot
Overview: The Danish Girl is loosely based on the lives of artists Gerda and Einar Wegener, a married couple navigating Einar’s transition to become a woman (Lili Elbe) through one of the first known sexual reassignment surgeries in the early 1920s. Focus Features; 2015; Rated R; 119 minutes.
Here, Oscar, Oscar, Oscar: It’s hard to imagine better leads than Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, fearlessly portraying the death of a marriage and delicately navigating the difficult course of a male to female transition in the early 20th century. The film is striking, the costumes elaborate, and the score lovely. And despite what I assume were its best efforts, I’ve walked away from few films more disappointed.
The Academy loves biopics. In fact, 1997 is the last year where all four actors won Oscars for performances based on fictional characters; the last several years have brought best actor trophies for men playing characters inspired by real people. And The Danish Girl reads as just that: a sheepishly lackluster film banking on its true story premise and controversial subject matter alone to do the heavy lifting. Simply put, The Danish Girl is Oscar bait, through and through.
Identity Crisis: Seldom do filmmakers choose to take artistic license with real-life characters to make them and their stories less interesting. But here we are. It’s difficult to determine whether the film is a failed adaptation of the novel on which it was based or a deliberate move to water down the colorful Gerda and Lili in hopes of making a more universally accessible film. Gerda is represented as a straight woman whose artistic talents are only realized when her husband gives up his own painting in pursuit of his true identity. She’s accepting of her husband’s “playing” Lili until it becomes apparent that it’s more than pretend. But her real-life counterpart was likely bisexual (some believe she was gay and her marriage to Einar was a mutually beneficial cover), and she was well known for her paintings of lesbian erotica. The real Gerda lived with Lili in their unconventional marriage, seemingly happily, for years. Alicia Vikander’s Gerda is nuanced, the actress exquisitely outshining her costars, but I longed for her portrayal of the more historically accurate artist.
The Danish Girl chooses to make Einar’s realization and dismissal of his life as a man abrupt, giving audiences no insight into his thoughts or feelings as he lingers between his two worlds as Einar and Lili. Redmayne has proven he is capable of great physical transformation in previous roles but does little more with the role than caress his own face and study the way women carried themselves—as if to say the salient point of being a woman is how she looks. And here is the great missed opportunity. Lili is longing to match her body to her spirit—she’s willing to die for it—but her character is depicted as little more than a vapid, hollow creature who is more interested in emulating fragile, feminine mannerisms than becoming the person she’s sure she was born—a person she assures Gerda is very different from Einar but never expresses how so. She speaks quietly and walks softly and refuses to paint, but her personality, mind, spirit, heart are locked behind Redmayne’s blank gaze, and her sexual identity is given no attention. The audience is given minutes to learn who Einar is and the majority of the two hour runtime to learn Lili but each still feels like a stranger as the credits roll. And while I suppose it’s possible this could speak to the greater themes of identity and self-discovery, it reads as an unrefined piece, as if Director Tom Hooper put the project in autopilot and wandered off, promising to return in time to collect any awards from academy members hoping to appear on the right side of the history, ballot-casting crusaders against the social injustices of the world.
Issues, Issues Everywhere: The titular girl is undoubtedly Gerda (she’s explicitly referred to as “the Danish girl” at one point), and the film has received criticism for just that. In what many may presume is a story about a man transitioning to a woman, it is in fact a story about the former wife of a man transitioning to a woman, forced to selflessly give up the life she had for her partner’s happiness. I can see the issues of choosing Redmayne over a transgendered actor, and I can understand the frustration with a film about a transgendered person actually being about her spouse instead. But I can also understand the decision to cast the usually competent Redmayne. And while too few stories depict people who are transitioning, even fewer depict the spouse’s story. There’s space for that, too. So, my biggest grievance with the film lies in the decision to choose a fiction much less intriguing, much less powerful than the true-life story. The Danish Girl instead waters down the real-life people who embarked upon the isolating, dangerous journey through the first documented sexual reassignment surgery. Naïve as it may be, I expect a certain amount of justice to be done to the real-life figures who inspired the work.
Overall: Vikander stuns. The rest disappoints.