The Danish Girl (2016) – Movie Review
The Danish Girl
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Lucinda Coxen
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw & Sebastian Koch
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Release Date: January 1st 2016
If you want a movie that, on-paper, looks scientifically designed to earn awards, look no further than ‘The Danish Girl‘. With director Tom Hooper who directed the Academy Award winning ‘The King’s Speech‘ and ‘Les Misérables’, Eddie Redmayne after winning an Oscar last year with ‘The Theory of Everything‘ in another “transformation” role based on the true story of Lili Elbe, the first transgendered woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery, especially when transgenderism is a hot-button issue right now, how could this movie not win big come awards-season?
However, it would seem that in recent weeks, the movie has lost some awards-momentum as all the competition has started showing up. In fact, ‘The Danish Girl‘ has been lambasted by the transgender community for its portrayal of one of its most iconic and famous figures. And while Tom Hooper has received a lot of awards recognition, it’s safe to say that the weakest part of his films are the direction. Can ‘The Danish Girl‘ leave an impact in what looks set to be a stacked awards season? Or is the true Lili Elbe movie still yet to be made?
It’s 1920s Copenhagen, Denmark. Married couple Einar and Gerda Wegener are making their way as famous artists. However, when Gerda’s female model doesn’t show up to finalise a portrait, she convinces her husband to put on her dress and stockings to model for her. When Einar puts the clothes on, something changes inside of him and he starts to embrace his female side, which the two dub “Lili”. But as Einar starts to embrace his femininity more and more and his marriage to Gerda becomes strained, Einar wants to undergo a full, but risky transformation to become the woman she feels like she’s always been.
Transgender terminology is a soft-spot for many people online so I’m just putting this out there now; I will be referring to Einar as he/him and I will be referring to Lili as she/her. The reason I’m not going to refer to them as she/her the entire time is because ‘The Danish Girl‘ (the movie, not necessarily the mostly fictional book written by David Ebershoff which this movie takes inspiration from or the true story as well as Lili’s biography “Man into Woman”) is not necessarily dealing with a transgender story, but it’s dealing with a split personality story. With that out of the way…let’s begin proper.
With the rise to prominence of Caitlyn Jenner in 2015 as well as increased cultural acceptance towards the transgender community (with progress still yet to be made) it seems like ‘The Danish Girl‘ is coming out at a very appropriate time. While Einar/Lili is not the first female to be born in a man’s body, he/she is the very first to undergo the surgery to try and physically make the transformation. And the movie starts off in a very compelling way as we get to see 1920s Denmark and Einar and Gerda’s relationship before the change as well as their careers as painters.
But the issues start the moment Einar puts on the dress to model for Gerda’s portrait and it goes downhill fast as the sequence in question plays almost like what you’d see in a 1990s parody of this true story. Einar caresses the dress, fondles it in his hands and the whole thing comes across as immensely saccharine. Yes, it’s true that Einar putting on the dress was the moment Lili was “born” (though not really, but more on that later) but that should come across through Eddie Redmayne’s performance, not Tom Hooper’s leering, intrusive camera angles, slow-motion shots and Alexandre Desplat’s bombastic score.
It also means that the next two or three scenes of Einar trying on women’s clothes or trying to embrace her femininity have nowhere to go. There’s no sense of escalation, narratively speaking, with Einar embracing this side of himself as the next few scenes play out exactly the same. Really, the bombastic music and the close-up camera angles should have STARTED in a scene where Einar sneaks into a theatre to look in front of the full-length mirror. But when you open with that, you have a first act of a movie without any progression.
But the issue deep down with ‘The Danish Girl‘ is that Einar and Lili are two completely different people. They both happen to be different genders, but the movie goes out of its way to show that Einar and Lili don’t share similar interests, life-goals or character traits (hence why this movie isn’t so much a transgender movie but rather a split-personality movie). Einar is a landscape painter, is soft-spoken and doesn’t like public-events but he enjoys the company of friends. Lili…well, Lili is just a woman. That that in lies the issue with ‘The Danish Girl‘. Lili isn’t a character. She’s a plot device in her own movie.
Lili’s sole defining character trait is that she’s a woman. All she wants to be is a woman. She has no goals or aspirations outside of…being female. In the first act of the movie, we get to know Einar as a person, but once Lili shows up we don’t get anything from her other than the fact that…she likes women’s clothes. Gerda even asks her if she’ll be a painter like Einar, to which Lili responds “I don’t want to be a painter. I want to be a woman”.
Because that’s not demeaning, right?
We also learn that Lili actually existed before Einar put the dress on, as Einar once dressed up as a girl when he was six and kissed his male best friend before his father chased his friend out of the house. Not only do we not actually see that happen on-screen (which would have made for a much better pre-title sequence then we actually get in the movie) but it would have worked better structurally to open the movie with that because Lili comes right the hell out of nowhere. When watching the first 20 minutes of ‘The Danish Girl‘, Lili is nowhere to be seen. Einar may not be the embodiment of masculinity but he’s not feminine either and there’s no sign of a female until Einar starts fondling the dress Gerda makes him wear. This means that when Einar says near the end of the movie “Lili’s been there all along”, it doesn’t ring true.
Whether or not the events of the movie are true to the real story of Einar/Lili, it comes across as Einar simply enjoying feminine things as opposed to him actually being a woman. Obviously in the 1920s what defined a man and a woman were different, but everything that Einar changes about himself when he becomes Lili is entirely superficial. Einar even goes to watch a stripper performance to mimic her actions so he can apply them when he becomes Lili again…actions that are designed to act as faux titillation for men. She wears lipstick, wears dresses, puts on make-up and…that’s it. Just who is Lili? What does she care about? What are her hopes, fears, desires? Einar says that when he dreams, they’re Lili’s dreams. But what does Lili dream about? This means that we’re watching a plot-device struggle as she transitions into something far less interesting than she was before. Einar was a rather simple but still endearing character. Lili is not.
If there’s one thing that ‘The Danish Girl‘ does portray very well, it’s the aspect that is often not talked about in conversation concerning Transgenderism and that’s about the husbands/wives, boyfriends/girlfriends left behind. The best part about ‘The Danish Girl‘ is the character of Gerda and her struggle as her husband transforms into someone who she accepts, but is not the person she fell in love with. There’s a great sense of guilt to her character as well since she played a part in Lili’s not-birth (since she was apparently there all along but not really). “We were playing a game”, she says to Einar after watching her husband kiss another man in public. Alicia Vikander has been a rising star this past year in ‘The Testament of Youth‘, ‘Ex_Machina‘, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘, ‘Son of a Gun‘ and ‘Seventh Son‘ (okay, maybe not those last two) and her portrayal of Gerda is easily the best aspect of the film.
That’s not to say that Eddie Redmayne is bad as Einar/Lili, far from it. Redmayne is clearly acting his heart out, but it’s hard to escape the fact that he may have been miscast in this role, or at least misdirected. Redmayne’s soft-spoken voice as Lili makes him come across as rather creepy at points in ways I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t intend and his portrayal of Lili is just female stereotyping. To be fair, the script doesn’t give Lili any characteristics beyond that so he has nothing to work with in terms of his performance. Redmayne gets more mileage out of Einar as he portrays a man who feels like he’s slowly losing himself to this alter-ego that he feels more comfortable with. He has a life, a profession and relationships that are falling away at the seams because he’s giving into his emotional instincts and it’s heart-wrenching to see that portrayed.
Though, it does have to be said, Eddie Redmayne makes for a pretty darn good looking woman.
His struggle as he tries to figure out which side of his personality to embrace also paves the way for a couple of harrowing moments as he visits doctors to try and figure out what’s “wrong” with him with one Doctor saying he can be “cured” through radiation, or that they can drill holes in his head or that he’s schizophrenic and needs to be locked up. This is made worse by the fact that this isn’t just the movie saying “look how bad it was for transgenders 90 years ago”. It’s essentially “yeah, this was being said about transgenders 90 years ago and we’re STILL doing it”.
For the supporting cast, we have Matthias Schoenaerts playing the exact same role he played in ‘Suite Française‘ and ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘, Ben Whishaw as a potential new love-interest for Lili and Sebastian Koch as the surgeon who wants to help Einar/Lili get a sex change operation. These characters serve their function to the plot but not much beyond that as they don’t have anything to work with outside their plot-specific roles.
I said before that Tom Hooper’s direction is the weakest part of his films and that holds true for ‘The Danish Girl‘. That’s not to say Tom Hooper is a BAD director but he often seems to be trying really really hard to make a unique looking movie instead of just letting the story play out. There are really oddly structured shots where characters only take up a quarter of the frame, there’s a lot of reliance on reflections and around two minutes of landscape before the opening credits start. Hooper clearly directs actors very well (sans Redmayne as Lili) and he has a superb eye for architecture and period detail, but outside of that ‘The Danish Girl‘ is a flatly directed film that feels like it’s letting the subject matter carry it. This is exacerbated by an ending that was so unintentionally funny due to Tom Hooper’s inability to calculate a scene’s tone, that it caused ‘The Danish Girl‘ to end on such a sour note.
Alexandre Desplat’s score is beautiful as is to be expected, but it’s far too bombastic during key moments. Whether or not that’s Desplat’s choice, or a sound editor mis-placed his tracks, I couldn’t tell you. Either way, subtlety is not this movie’s strong suit, with the leering, intrusive camera, slow-motion shots etc. The make-up, costumes, wigs and sets are as great as is to be expected as Tom Hooper re-teams with Production Designer Eve Stewart who worked on ‘The King’s Speech‘ and ‘Les Misérables’ and her work is superb as always.
‘The Danish Girl‘ takes a true story that rings true in this current social climate and seems to let that be the be-all and the end-all. We get very little insight into Lili as a person and she’s introduced so abruptly and is so poorly defined as a character that she feels like a macguffin in her own movie. The sub-plot with Gerda slowly coming to terms with her husband’s new identity and the bitter-sweet guilt associated with that is endearing and Alicia Vikander is a proven star in the making, but with flat direction and very little exploration outside the superficial aspects of the movie’s subject matter ‘The Danish Girl‘ rings emotionally hollow, no matter how many tears the main characters shed for awards contention.
I give ‘The Danish Girl‘ 2 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted In: 2016 Reviews Reviews
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Posted: 9th Jan 16