Based on a true story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sexual reassignment surgery in 1920s, The Danish Girl is unfortunately too wispy, sentimental and suffocatingly conventional to do its subject justice.
I didn’t really expect innovation and fireworks from the director Tom Hooper (I am still bitter about him winning Oscar over David Fincher… why Academy why?), but even a pedestrian film can often be lifted by a great central performance. And there is a great performance to be found here but it doesn’t belong to Eddie Redmayne, who plays Einar/Lily.
When we first meet Einar, he’s a young successful landscape painter living in a funky shabby-arty apartment in Copenhagen with his painter wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander). They adore each other, with the absence of children the only shadow on their marriage. Gerda specialises in portraits, and is told by gallery owners that she’s got the makings of a great artist if only she can find her true subject. One day, when her model doesn’t turn up, she insists that Einar don stockings, shoes and dress and pose for her instead. Einar is mortified at first, but the experience awakens something in him, the sense of his true self, which intensifies even further when Gerda, in a moment of mischief, gets him to fully dress up as a woman for the artists ball they’re both attending. Gerda, in turn, is shaken by the realisation that her husband’s transformation (nicknamed Lili by their mutual friend) is no lark, while at the same time Lili energises her art and becomes the subject of her paintings which immediately gain popularity.
At one point later in the film, Gerda remarks to Lili that she sometimes has no idea what goes on in her head, and that pretty much summed up my problem with the character, whose real-life bravery is incredible (transgender surgery at the time was unheard of and the risks were enormous). Eddie Redmayne has a striking androgyny to him which is used well in the movie, and there are a couple of scenes which I found truly affecting, such as the one where Einar examines his naked body in a full-length mirror in an empty theatre, trying to locate his real self in this masculine shape. But Lili remains frustratingly opaque and sidelined in her own movie and for the most part Redmayne’s repertoire of coy smiles and feminine gestures is a skin-deep performance with no real depth.
The movie essentially treats Lili as the inscrutable Other while it’s really Gerda’s struggle with her husband’s choices that resonates (the movie goes as far as actually refer to her as the titular Danish Girl). This is not to dismiss the fantastic work of Alicia Vikander, who truly excels in what could have been a cliched Caring Supportive Wife role. With her intelligent dark eyes and her jauntily held cigarette, Gerda feels like a three-dimensional character and Vikander imbues her with a wonderful spirit and compassion. Matthias Schoenaerts of the Far From The Madding Crowd also pops up in a solid, lovely supporting turn as Einar’s old childhood friend.
I rather enjoyed the beautiful shots of Copenhagen and the movie’s production and costume design are top-notch. I got annoyed by some of the Hooperisms which drove me nuts during The King’s Speech, like his bizarre cropping choices which to me scream, look at meee I’m being arty for no good reason whatsoever, though they’re not as prominent here. The whole movie has this polite glossy sheen over it where any real edges are smoothed over and the handling of prejudices is heavy-handed. Lili’s story is something that deserved to be told, it’s just a shame that it got told in such a toothless manner.