The Danish Girl (2015)
While you watch The Danish Girl, you can feel the full weight of everybody’s good intentions. The filmmakers and cast all seem to realize that they are telling a story that will humanize and help others better understand trans issues. It’s the first sexual reassignment surgery and a community that is still fighting for wider acceptance. Nobody wants to screw up this story and do a disservice to representing the stories of the trans community. You feel the earnest good intentions with every frame, and yet I would argue those same good intentions end up paralyzing the movie and its impact.
Lili Erbe (Eddie Redmayne) is living her life as Einar Wegener, a Danish landscape painter of some renown in the 1920s. His wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), is a portrait artist trying to be more than the wife of a famous painter. One day, Gerda’s model is absent and she asks Einar to step in. He puts on stockings, holds a gown to his body, and it’s a revelation. Soon after Einar is wearing women’s garments under his clothes and Gerda dresses him up with makeup and a wig. It’s a fun diversion and something of a turn-on for Gerda, and then her husband informs her that Lili isn’t the costume, Einar is. Lili tries to find a sense of explanation with disdainful psychiatrists and doctors but is deemed aberrant. Lili is struggling with this crisis of identity and self-acceptance, and then a new beginning emerges with a helpful doctor who can physically transform Lili from a man into a woman. The surgery is not without risk but Lili is willing to do whatever it takes to feel whole (note: since Lili is the chosen gender identity for the film’s subject, I shall be referring to her as Lili and using feminine pronouns).
Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) gives a suitably affecting performance that is full of empathy and a halting sense of fragility. He seems like he’s about to crumble at any moment, his nervous smile and pleading and confused eyes communicating Lili’s trepidation and flights of exciting discovery. Redmayne’s delicate androgynous features and long-limbed dancer’s body play to his strengths, as he adjusts his physicality to reflect his mind’s experimentation of what it would be like to be a woman. There’s a rather lovely visual where Lili visits a peep show in Paris. After a few minutes of bashful eye contact, she begins to mimic the peep show model’s physical poses, and the camera’s focus melts between the two. It feels like a dance between the two and in this simple visual much is communicated. Unfortunately, the majority of the movie lacks the impact of this poignant visual. Redmayne too often retreats into his stable of nervous gesticulations and halted speech. It’s a performance that feels too detached and too opaque to make you feel the full turmoil of Lili. There’s an interesting moment when, dressed as Lili, a smitten man kisses her without permission. Lili is upset at the lack of consideration, to which the man replies, “I couldn’t chance you saying no.” That little moment highlights the challenges of women in a society that doesn’t respect their agency. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t present more scenes that explore this new dynamic that Lili will have to adjust to. Instead the move repeatedly falls back on her as Brave and Strong. As presented, Lili is more catalyst than a fleshed-out character, which is remarkable considering the movie is reportedly about her struggles. Rather, the real focus of the story seems to be Gerda, who, incidentally, is the only person on screen referred to as “the Danish girl.”
Gerda is given equal attention in the screen adaptation by Lucinda Coxon (The Crimson Petal and the White), which is generous and will likely leave several viewers confused. First, Gerda is given the most complete character arc and a surprising amount of consideration for her perspective. I suppose she could be the audience’s entry point into this story, the relatable position for many audience members trying to better understand a loved one saying they were born in the wrong body. The movie presents greater empathy for Gerda’s plight than it does Lili, which is definitely unexpected and perhaps misplaced. Surely finding the courage to embrace a controversial identity that precious few will even acknowledge, let alone the bastions of contemporary medical science declaring such thinking to be signs of a degenerative brain, is a bit more of a risk than being a supportive spouse. I don’t want to mitigate Gerda’s own personal struggles dealing with the outward transformation of Einar into Lili. It’s a position that deserves deep empathy and the movie has it in spades, as we watch Gerda try to be supportive while the person she fell in love with erases himself. Vikander (Ex Machina) also kills it. Her performance is full of the breadth of emotions that I found wanting in her screen partner. Vikander’s face registers all the complicated emotions; she’s in a sense saying goodbye to her husband and a specific life they shared, and while for her it can feel like mourning, for Lili it is a rebirth. Viankder’s compassionate and nuanced performance as Gerda is the exclamation on one hell of a year for the Swedish actress.
Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The King’s Speech) gives everything the proper stately appearance with his signature visual indulgences (the man loves his asymmetrical one-shots and generous head room in the camera frame). There are several landscapes or venues that look gorgeous or given a dream-like sense just from Hooper’s framing. His handling of his actors is first-rate, and there’s a comfortable sensuality to scenes between Einar and Gerda, further communicating just how enraptured each is with the other. The musical score by Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) is a bit over excited to explain all the many emotions you should be feeling, but other than that the technical aspects of The Danish Girl are pleasing to the senses and enhance the story. I just wish the screenplay gave us so much more to think about when it comes to Lili.
As a strange aside, I’d like to question what the MPAA is referring to with its disclaimer that The Danish Girl is R-rated for such content as “full nudity.” I understand the concept of partial nudity since you’re only seeing a fraction of the form, but what exactly makes one’s nudity full? Do they mean “complete” as in you see everything, front to back? If so, I thought that content was already covered in the oft-used term of “graphic nudity.” For you ratings aficionados out there, or people who are intrigued with arcane movie trivia like myself, I’ve discovered that “graphic” often means two things: the sight of a penis or pubic hair. If its breasts, bottoms, or female genitals absent the appearance of hair, it’s commonly categorized plainly as “nudity.” There’s likely a larger essay on why male genitals are thought of as “graphic,” and especially why seeing pubic hair on women is somehow a sight in need of more forewarning than simply “nudity,” but I’ll set that bit of cultural soul-searching aside for a later day. If you must know, there’s a brief shot of Redmayne tucking his genitals behind his legs and creating the image of a woman. I double-checked and the MPAA hasn’t revised the rating rationale for 1991’s Silence of the Lambs (also a prominent film tuck display), but I’ll let you know, dear reader, if any more information comes across my news desk on this very weird subject.
Tasteful to a fault, The Danish Girl is a reserved biopic that goes about its story with a sincere and earnest sense of responsibility. It wants to tell its story correctly instead of telling its story in the best-developed and executed fashion, and there is a difference. The performances are strong, though Viankder is the standout as the film’s surprising focus. Redmayne feels too timid and fragile to make Lili’s story resonate beyond common human compassion. The screenplay doesn’t place us insider her mind. Instead, we’re treated more to how Lili’s choices are impacting her supportive but anguished wife. In 1930, a mere four months after the fourth and final surgery, Lili died from complications related to the operation, lending a greater sense of tragedy (this fact is left out of the concluding text). It’s a movie that feels too distant even from itself. Everything is so reserved, so tasteful, so artfully opaque, so afraid of making the wrong step that The Danish Girl ends up being an Oscar-bait biopic that feels too hesitant and bloodless.
Nate’s Grade: B-