Movie Review: The Danish Girl (2015)

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There’s something strangely amiss about director Tom Hooper’s Jazz Age transgender portrait, The Danish Girl. By all accounts the film seems as though it would be initially considered as a monumental achievement for its controversial subject matter alone, not to mention its established pedigree of Academy-Award winning talent behind and in front of the camera. However, this immaculately crafted film—both in acting prowess and a self-assured visual style—feels disappointingly hollow, as it delves into the concept of gender and its cause du jour with a delicate superficiality that feels trapped in its chosen genre’s conventions: the earnest Oscar-bait biopic. Arguably all of Hooper’s films conform to this dismayingly safe template, whether it’s the undeserved award-winning The King’s Speech (2010), his ambitious yet ultimately messy musical debacle in Les Miserables (2012), or even his often forgotten best example of the Oscar-bait model, The Damned United (2009). But The Danish Girl in particular—though a comfortable fit in Hooper’s tasteful-to-a-fault film repertoire—feels weighed down by its own restrained decency. Tackling the complex and internalized conflict of transgenderism certainly requires a light touch, but Hooper’s polished, even didactic, style actually performs a disservice to the material and to the motivations of painter Einar Wegener—the transgender pioneer who transformed into Lili Elbe via one of the first sexual reassignment surgeries in history. Because the film’s focus is on the obsession of carnal features—the feminine physique, an innate fascination with the complexion of womanhood, and the discovery of the male gaze—it unintentionally belittles womanhood and the concept of gender while also turning Einar’s transformation into a collection of copied mannerisms and declarations, never exploring the character’s interior fragile mind or resilient spirit. The Danish Girl’s heart is certainly in the right place, but this overly fictionalized account creates a film that shallowly, and ironically, juggles competing cinematic identities: an ineffective character study, a devastating portrait of marital sacrifice, and the exhausted pandering of a message film.

At first glance, The Danish Girl sort of resembles the narrative template of Hooper’s previous Oscar-winner The King’s Speech (2010). It’s a blend of individual struggle while in the influence of a marriage, though this time it’s bohemian rather than aristocratic, and it focuses on landscape artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his portraitist wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). Set in a softly colored Copenhagen in 1926, and marginally based on David Ebershoff’s part-fiction, part-factual novel of the same title, Lucinda Coxen’s script is actually at its most confident in introducing the two young lovers who support each other’s artistry, provide the goading playfulness of competition, and have the perfect blend of equal friendship and deep sexual yearning. But this enchanting and convincing romance turns out to be built on a false foundation, when Einar finds an inner awakening through sheer inadvertence wearing stockings and heels as a replacement model for one of Gerda’s portraits. Their marital change—from adoring, sexual lovers to sexless cohabitants—as well as Einar’s personal transformation into Lili is so quick, so thoughtless in its exploration that it might give the viewer an unexpected sense of narrative whiplash. Most of the film is focused on Lili’s emergence; a superficial foray into her initial confusion, discovery of desires, and tormented final decision, all of which are handled with a debilitating reservation. The historical Lili Elbe saw herself as completely separate from her host Einar—two souls who embodied the same vessel—and while the script does explore the notion of ignorant killer and a disposed victim in the same body, it’s done so with extreme triviality. Einar is shown to us as a full-bodied, moody, erotic individual, and Lili, in contrast, is a character who is never deeply aware of her own internal desires. Instead of painting a trailblazing pioneer, The Danish Girl has created an oversimplification of what it means to be a woman, as Lili’s—and the film’s—focus is solely on artifice and surface: adoring glances through mirrored reflections, lingering looks at silk dresses, and the purity of attracted, on looking gazes.

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It’s no surprise that Lili is drastically underwritten, mostly because the film stresses the significance of its message over the creation of a layered, perhaps even flawed, character. The Danish Girl has Lili beginning as a fantasy portrait who never finds her own sense of genuine life; an assembly of imitated gestures, an adopted sense of retrograde societal conventions, and a learned use of exaggerated, leering body language through the study of a peep-show stripper—someone who ignites artificial femininity for the imagination of men. Compare that to the bold, aggressive, and modern women that surround her, from ballet dancer Ulla (Amber Heard) to even her supportive-to-a-fault partner Gerda, and Lili’s quest to become a housewife while quitting her profession and obsessing about her appearance seems annoyingly reductionist. “I want to be a woman, not a painter,” sighs Lili, with Gerda defiantly responding, “Well, some people have been known to do both.” Gerda—portrayed with vehement grace and effortless beauty by Alicia Vikander, the stronger of the two actors on screen—showcases a true modern woman, someone who finds balance in career and home. She’s heroic in her support yet tragic in her yielding to Lili’s domineeringly selfish—almost patriarchal—needs, as she is inevitably bereft of emotional support and forced into celibacy. This all could possibly suggest a rebuke of Lili’s obvious backward assimilation into what society deemed a woman, though the title cards praise the bravery of its transgender pioneer, which leaves a confusion of identity existing in the film. What also undermines the film beyond that is the unsettling facts that remind us that none of what is being depicted on screen is actually true. The portrayed relationship of selfish dreamer and suffering victim is far from the reality that defined Einar and Gerda’s twenty-six year marriage—a bond that was more unconventional and longer than what the film messily ventures.

Still, there’s some semblance of emotional connection ingrained in The Danish Girl because of the performances that uncover the film’s dimming heart. Redmayne’s a committed mimic, and his androgynous features combined with his paradoxical gift of overstated understatement make for an impressive depiction of physical transformation. Hooper and collaborating cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, Room) take ample opportunity to luxuriate on Redmayne’s changing features, facial subtleties, and his casual morphing from Einar to Lili with as much fascination as they have for Paco Delgado’s decadent costumes and Eve Stewart’s Jazz Age production design, which features that Hooper signature decoration of peeling wallpaper. But because the performance is reduced to mimicking poses and delicate smiles, it’s not seemingly unlike his technically precise performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014); a performance that’s phenomenal in its technical execution, but lacking in an emotional fullness that is required for these internal portrayals. This allows Alicia Vikander to wrestle the emotional soul away from The Danish Girl, as her dramatic impulsiveness and commitment to form brings a vibrant life to Gerda. In every instance—whether she’s painting, smoking, or offering a consoling hand—she possesses a believable control of her character that’s as elusive as it is direct. It’s unfortunate that all the other characters, from Lili to Ulla to invented art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), are preserved archetypes that carry very little life to their well-intended existence. It’s this asymmetry of character fullness combined with Hooper’s earnest yet hollow direction that doesn’t allow the film to grasp any source of its subject’s emotional clarity or trailblazing bravery. Just because you have beautiful imagery, carefully constructed performances, and an emotionally overwrought score from Alexandre Desplat doesn’t mean that your film immediately conjures up an emotional commitment from the audience. That requires more than just the airlessness of quality cinema and some admirable formulaic virtue.

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It’s not enough to declare your subject brave, because that’s a bold proclamation that needs substantial evidence or, at minimum, an emotional sympathy to be convincing. That also requires a filmmaker brave enough to challenge cinematic conventions, delve into the subject’s desires, as well as flaws, and dare to critique its characters motivations. Tom Hooper, unfortunately, is too safe a director to tackle controversial material, and ultimately wastes The Danish Girl’s opportunity to depict a truly brave Lili Elbe as a pioneer of resilient spirit in the face of physical danger and social stigmas. Instead, we have a superficial character study that focuses solely on the character’s external fascinations and never dares to explore her inner desires. This leaves us with a film that wears its noble intentions on its sleeve, in the hopes that an earnest message explored through pristine filmmaking is enough to generate worthy praise. Viewing The Danish Girl with a skewed opinion on its merits alone does a disservice to the art of cinema and to the quality of messaging its subject matter deserves. The real-life story of Einar Wegener, his wife Gerda, and his transformation into Lili is a far more fascinating journey filled with life’s abnormal twists, devastating mistakes, and selfish behaviors. To tell that story of a modern love, the struggle of acceptance, and discovery of a new self would be truly brave cinema, but The Danish Girl simply isn’t that.

Grade: C

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