There is a great thing about Tom Hooper’s films: if you’re not totally on board with the subject matter in the beginning of his films, his visual style will always keep you engaged until you are. This proved true for me in The King’s Speech and really worked for me quite well with his new film The Danish Girl, although the things I found out afterwards damn this film with a lot of Hollywood glossing over and just plain omissions of truth to make the story relatable. These sorts of things do start to bother me in hindsight.
Adapted from a book by David Ebershoff, Eddie Redmayne plays Dutch artist Einar Wegener, who lives in Copenhagen with his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) – an artist as well, still trying to find her niche while her husband has received acclaim for his work. When her model cancels out on her, Gerda asks Einer to step in for her, donning stockings and shoes to finish some details on her painting. This has a pretty profound effect on Einar, evidenced as Redmayne plays this in a pretty overwrought fashion with hitched breathing and trembling fingers over the fabric. A bit too obvious for my liking, but this is how he does all of the first act.
Feelings really start to manifest when a public function comes up that both Einar and Gerda need to attend. Einar is completely against attending until Gerda convinces him to fully dress up as a woman, to go incognito. In a fun experiment between the young couple, Gerda transforms him into Lili Elbe, Einer’s cousin. At the party, Einar ends up spending the evening with a young man, Henrik (Ben Whishaw), and even goes as far as sharing a kiss with him.
All of these feelings leave Einar conflicted to who he really is inside. Is he a man or a woman trapped in a man’s body? All the signs point to the latter, as he starts to dress up and go out more and more as Lili, leaving Gerda unsure of the state of her marriage. Will she and Einar ever have the children she wants? As her husband starts to fade and this new girl starts to emerge, Gerda must decide whether to support Einar’s full transition into Lili.
I felt like the film presents the titular question of who the Danish Girl is. Is this the story of a Danish girl emerging from within a man who had buried the truth for so long? Or, is this film about a Danish girl who would do anything for her husband’s happiness no matter the cost? As much as this is Eddie Redmayne’s movie, and he will get a lot of the clout, I feel that Vikander is definitely the standout in this film, delivering a heartfelt performance that will surely get her noticed. It’s been an astounding year for her with some great films in her breakout year.
The Hollywood grinder of scriptwriting really bogs down this film by throwing in tropes to make the story easier to digest for a mass public. In reality, Gerda Wegener was not a straightforward young wife who just wanted to be pregnant yet felt her husband being ripped away from her. Instead, the real Gerda is described as “actively lesbian” during their time in Paris in 1912 when Elbe was living openly as a woman. Why was this glazed over for this film? I would have completely accepted the real story and it irks me that it got so washed away.
So, once again we see the world of mainstream film very happy to celebrate the LGBTQ community with this one transgendered character but still holding back with going any deeper than a surface value. Sure, Redmayne delivers a solid performance, at least in the later two thirds, some of which can only be described as transcendent but the reservations in this film are still glaringly there. We get only the focus on one character’s struggle for identity, making Vikander’s role, as good as it is, full of stock emotions from every concerned wife. It’s unfortunate.
As I said, Hooper’s eye makes this movie all worth watching. His interesting framing throughout the film give you seconds of breathtaking pause and engrosses you. A couple of standouts in this film are the scene where Lili goes to visit Henrik at his house, which is a neighborhood of orange houses in a beautiful one point perspective shot. Hooper also employs his fantastic framing of dialogue coverage that made The King’s Speech so interesting.
My initial thoughts about this film were much more favorable when the credits rolled than they were once I read into the real events in Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe’s lives. Anyone who is knowledgeable will immediately take offense, I’m sure, to the smoothing over of these pretty important points. Outside of this, it’s a beautifully acted film by two pretty powerful leads that is almost enough for you to forget that everyone’s speaking with english accents in Denmark. I give The Danish Girl a three and a half out of five.