In the early 1900s, Einar Wegener was a successful painter in Copenhagen specializing in landscapes. Einar also lived a double-life as a woman known as Lili Elbe, and in 1930 became one of the first in the world to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl purports to tell the story of Einar/Lili, though it finds such little dramatic weight in it that it winds up focusing on Lili’s wife, Gerda Gottlieb, a fellow painter who earned widespread fame for her portraits of Lili.
Strangely, most of the dramatic arc in the film belongs to her character’s reaction to Lili’s transition, rather than Lili’s transition itself – which should be (and is, in all-too-brief glimpses here) rife with drama. What should be the focus of this story has been glossed-over and simplified for mainstream consumption.
Still, this is handsomely crafted feature from the Oscar-winning director behind The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, full of rich period atmosphere and cinematography, flawless set and costume design, and some affecting performances.
It also a particularly timely and relevant – and important – story to tell. Despite its flaws, that’s been enough to earn it a warm – if not particularly enthusiastic – reception from most critics.
For what it’s worth, I found it more effective in its storytelling than last year’s Oscar bait movies, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, which won star Eddie Redmayne an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking.
Redmayne is just as good – if not better – here as Lili Elbe, and entirely convincing as a woman trapped inside a man’s body – something that’s become a cliché now, but was so unheard of in the early 20th century that Lili was institutionalized after seeking psychiatric help.
Redmayne’s portrayal, and the matter-of-fact presentation with which Hooper presents it, is something we’ve rarely (if ever) seen in mainstream cinema before. There’s a sequence here that can’t help but recall moments in Silence of the Lambs (played for the creepiness) or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (played for lowbrow comedy), but the gentle nature with which its handled here is a reminder of how far we’ve come over the past two decades. Still, many audiences won’t know how to react: expect nervous laughter if you see it in the cinema.
And then there are other sequences, such as the one where Gerda (played by Alicia Vikander), in need of a model for her painting, asks Lili to put on some stockings and a dress and… blush, smile, Lili’s suddenly into it. Apparently, this was a real-life incident, but this is the film’s first hint of Lili’s secret side when clearly (as we learn later on) it’s been a recurring motif throughout her life.
Other scenes – like a montage of Lili learning how to walk in high heels or imitating the movements of random women on the street – feel like something out of Mrs. Doubtfire, lacking the delicacy or matter-of-factness to suit the material.
While Redmayne is excellent as Lili, I had some problems with Vikander’s Gerte (who, despite a Supporting Actress nomination, is clearly the lead here); while the actress was wonderful in last year’s Ex Machina, and one of the best things about The Man from U.N.C.L.E., she looks and feels far too contemporary for this role.
More convincing, I felt, was Amber Heard as the couple’s close friend and one of the few who knows about Lili’s secret; I didn’t even recognize her in the role until I spotted her name in the credits. Ben Whishaw, as a friend who shows Lili some affection, and Matthias Schoenaerts, as a childhood friend of Lili’s who lends Gerda some support, also offer fine support.
The Danish Girl opened on the festival circuit last year to muted appreciation, as if it skirted by on its important-feeling subject matter alone. But despite the narrative issues, it’s better than that, and certainly worth seeing for adult audiences who can appreciate the story at hand.