Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by Lucinda Coxon
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Adrian Schiller and Amber Heard
Runtime: 119 minutes
In 2010, director Tom Hooper dazzled the world with his third feature The King’s Speech. He showed great promise and quickly rose to prominence, able to direct anything he wanted for his follow-up. Unfortunately, that follow-up was 2012’s Les Miserables, a musical that did not successfully make the jump to film and a film that didn’t understand it was the characters who were supposed to be miserable, not the audience watching them. Now comes The Danish Girl which isn’t as good as The King’s Speech by a long shot but is not nearly as bad as Les Miserables. Given that, it’s still a disappointment given that it seems to want to give a voice and a legitimacy (?) to transgender individuals. Sorry to say, but this is not the trans empowerment film you’re looking for.
The story revolves around Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda. Both are artists in 1920s Holland, but Einar is more respected (simply because he’s a man, it seems). One day, Gerda needs a stand-in for one of her portraits and she convinces Einar to put on a dress, complete with stockings, shoes et all to pose for her. He protests but does it anyway and is later seen touching the clothing longingly and Gerda and their dancer friend Ulla (Amber Heard) and Einar decide to really make him up to look like a woman whom Einar names Lili. Lili soon becomes an alter-ego for Einar to the point where he identifies more strongly with Lili than Einar and decides to live life as a woman. She then discovers there is a doctor that may be able to surgically do this for her, making her the first person to undergo a sex-change operation.
That sounds like a give-away of the entire story, and maybe it is, but it’s more or less the official description of the film and therein lies the problem. Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon simplifies the story so much that a lot of the nuance is drained out of it. Though there are some good scenes, the film just plods along, slowly building to the finale but not building in emotion. There is a distance put between the audience and the characters that makes identification difficult (but not impossible). She makes Einar/Lili incredibly tortured, as she should well be identifying as a woman in the 20s was likely a difficult thing for a man to do, but it all ends up being a little too matter-of-fact. Gerda and her emotional state is far too simple at the start to justify the complexity she shows at the very end. She’s written as the dutiful and faithful wife, supporting her husband in his endeavor, which is good but she’s too understanding to be believable. True, this is conceived as a love story around the true story of Lili and her coming into being, but it’s all a bit too contrived to be involving or meaningful.
The emotion is supplied by Hooper, who directs the film with emotion though without subtlety or nuance. All of his ques are straight-forward and leaves no room for any kind of interpretation. His attempts to show that Einar was coming to the decision that he was really Lili were ham-fisted and obvious without letting his actors develop the emotional content naturally. The distance in the screenplay is amplified through Hooper’s direction. He keeps everyone at arm’s length and never gets us close enough to really ever become involved to the point of having an emotional response to the ending, which is tragic and beautiful but the emotions don’t feel genuine. He does an excellent job with the framing and keeps the look subdued but lovely and crafts some scenes with genuine care and in some cases playfulness. When he lets his actors go, they look like they’re having fun with their characters, however those sequences are few and far between.
They acting is above the bar the script and direction sets and its Vikander that stands out the most. This is her second great performance of 2015 after her role in the great Ex Machina (a role that deserves more recognition than this one does). She brings a special empathy to Gerda and works with the obviousness and simplified character beautifully. She brings what nuance she can to the character despite it being written as a simplified doting wife. Redmayne is okay, but he’s as technical as ever in his portrayal. He’s a talented actor, but his craft is always close to the surface and his decisions are too much on his face to let him completely disappear into his roles and this one is the same. He never feels truly committed to his role, though he does a serviceable job. It was a risky move for Redmayne to take this role, but it deserved more dedication. Heard is fun in her limited screen time, but she’s underused and as a result, nearly forgettable.
The big trouble with the film is the execution and the implication that Einar was somehow turned to his identification as a woman by the cross-dressing. There are some lines that tell us that he felt like this as a child but seemed to have buried it, but not enough was made of that. His longing caresses of stockings and such also give the wrong impression that all men who cross-dress are transsexual, while in fact that is a separate circumstance that is often classified as a sexual fetish. Many will also state that Einar was a gay man, because of his eventual identification as a woman, but this doesn’t seem to be the case either. He loved his wife as Einar and as Lili and even when he became involved with a gay man, it wasn’t a sexual relationship, it was one born out of both being misunderstood people. The ambiguities that Coxon wrote and Hooper played up only serve to paint a confused picture that lacks any organic qualities and does a disservice to the subject.
In a time when trans rights and identities are at the forefront of the news cycle, it’s not enough just to make a film about a trans-gender pioneer. That film should allow viewers to connect emotionally with the character and understand that everyone is a person trying to realize their true selves as they see themselves. The Danish Girl does not do that, and it is unfortunate because it is a handsome production and a subject that could have made an enduring and harrowing film. Instead, it misses its mark and ultimately fails to connect.