Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard
Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: Lucinda Coxon
In a year where transgender stories and themes were able to reach a wider mainstream audience on TV with such shows as Transparent, Sense8, Boy Meets Girl, and of course I am Cait, the transgender movement has never been more visible or widely supported. Therefore there was much expectation for The Danish Girl which many hoped would help take the cause even further. Although there is a progressive history of transgender cinema, (The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica to name a few) few of the filmmakers driving it have had the mainstream appeal of Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables. Given the significant rise in prominence the subject matter has made in recent years I was curious to see whether The Danish Girl would be the film that everybody wants it to be.
The film tells the real life story of Lili Elbe, one of the first known people to receive sex reassignment surgery. Before Lili there was Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), a successful landscape artist living in 1920s Copenhagen. When his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), herself an aspiring artist, asks him to stand in for a female model Einar undergoes an awakening. As he finds himself entranced in his role as a woman, he discovers another side of himself whom he christens Lili. Over time Einar grows to understand that Lili has always been there deep within his sub-conscious and realises that she represents the core of who he truly is. This sets off a progression as Lili tries to leave her former identity behind so that she might live her life free from constraint and repression. When she discovers Dr Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), whose work concerns the practice of gender reassignment, Lili sees it as her chance for salvation.
The main problem with this film is that it is too safe. I believe the film was well-intentioned and wanted to pay all due respect to this woman’s story but it doesn’t take it far enough. Vital themes are underexplored; the focal characters are underwritten; and important questions are left unasked. The central conflict of this film is that between Lili and Einar where she must confront the reality that she is a woman trapped in a man’s body. The film however never goes deep enough to really explore the suffocation and confinement she must feel nor does it ever get to the heart of who Lili actually is. The focus of this film is placed on Lili’s situation rather than on Lili herself, resulting in a story without a character. The film also tries to incorporate Gerda’s struggle into the story as she confronts the prospect of losing her husband in order to help Lili. Her story is handled better than Lili’s is as the film showcases how this situation is just as difficult for her. The story is not handled badly nor would I call this film dull, it just seems airless to me. The film knows what it wants to say but it isn’t brave or daring enough to say it.
The actors for the most part do well with what they are given. I understand that the decision to cast the cisgender Eddie Redmayne as Lili got a lot of controversy but I thought he did very well considering. His performance is understated and vulnerable and he does a good job of conveying the anguish of a person torn between two identities. Alicia Vikander has gone from strength to strength this year and gives what is easily the film’s best performance. Her character’s struggle to help the person she loves become who she needs to be even though it means erasing the life that they have together is portrayed with such heart and sensitivity. Hooper for his part gives the film a very refined and elegant look much like a painting. As a director he has often favoured extreme close-ups of his characters and employs it to effective use with his intimate shots of Einar as he discovers and explores his feminine side.
The film’s refined and elegant tone however is also its let-down. The film tries so hard to tell this story in a tasteful and sensitive way that it ends up whitewashing the elements that really matter. The focus is placed on the conceptual element of the story rather than on the human element which means that the character at the centre of it all gets downplayed. There are occasional glimpses of the film that could’ve been (I remember one particularly moving scene taking place at a peep-show) but for the most part The Danish Girl plays it safe with its subject matter. I was hoping that this film would help introduce transgender themes to a wider mainstream audience but the problem is that the film itself is too mainstream. It is a noble, well-meaning effort but a reserved one nevertheless.