With The Danish Girl, the art-film world has effected a small breach into one of Western society’s last standing social and human-rights barriers by delivering a decorous, sympathetic portrait of a transgendered person: Lili Elbe, born Einar Wegener, a successful landscape painter who became, in 1930, one of the first known people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. It’s a knockout-gorgeous film to look at – worth seeing for the cinematography alone, which will make you want to relocate to Copenhagen or Paris immediately. It’s distinguished by the same sort of tour-de-force physical acting by Eddie Redmayne in the role of Einar/Lili that won him last year’s Best Actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything. And yet…there’s something about this top-shelf drama that ultimately misses the lofty mark at which director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) takes aim.
Adapted by Lucinda Coxon from David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same name, which plays somewhat fast and loose with the story of the real-life Einar’s marriage to fellow painter Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) and his transformation into Lili, The Danish Girl is a story about profound internal conflict that relies, alas, far too much upon external semiotics. And maybe that’s a problem inherent in the very nature of cinema, which is famously supposed to show rather than tell. But there are also directorial choices involved, and from the perspective of an admittedly feminist reviewer, some of those choices seem wrongheaded.
Our first hint that Einar is repressing something important, as we witness scene after scene illustrating deep bonds of affection, trust and even physical passion between husband and wife, is the sensual way that he runs his hands over the costumes hanging backstage at the ballet where the couple’s close friend Ulla dances. It’s also our first red flag that this is going to be one of those stories, told by a man, in which the visual shorthand for what makes a woman a woman is reduced primarily to such trivial surface details as clothes, shoes, hair, makeup, jewelry, coquettish glances and “feminine” gestures.
Vikander’s character – here rendered as exclusively heterosexual, although the historical Gerda Wegener is widely thought to have been bisexual – labors under no such limitations to her self-image as excessive fascination with personal adornment. She’s a forthright, tough-minded Bohemian babe with a wry sense of humor who chain-smokes with a cigarette holder, makes the first moves when she first meets shy Einar at art school, immerses herself in her painting, markets her work aggressively to art dealers who don’t take female artists seriously, enjoys parties, likes to twit nervous male portrait sitters about the “female gaze.” She dresses with a sense of personal style, as befits a visual artist, but doesn’t agonize over her clothing choices; she’s a woman with much bigger fish to fry.
By contrast, the milestones in Einar’s rediscovery of the Lili persona inside himself begin with his surprised delight in the feel of the stockings that Gerda asks him to put on so that she can continue painting the legs of a dancer when Ulla turns up late for a sitting. Soon he is trying on Gerda’s silk chemise as part of their sex play and finding the feel of the fabric powerfully erotic. Unsuspecting Gerda challenges him to try to pass for a woman at a party, helps him with his makeup, and then finds herself alarmed when a male party guest kisses “Lili.”
The more Einar subsumes himself into the Lili character, the less interested he becomes in painting anything besides his own face. Meanwhile, Gerda starts making edgy portraits of him in drag and suddenly finds an enthusiastic market for her depictions of her husband’s mysterious “cousin.” As her career takes off and Einar becomes more self-absorbed in acting out what he now knows is his true gender identity, Gerda’s feisty personality begins to crumble. Her life partner’s triumph becomes her tragedy.
But in classic long-suffering, devoted wife fashion, Gerda never slacks in her support for Lili’s takeoff from their former nest of domestic bliss, despite what she is being asked to sacrifice. Vikander does an outstanding job of conveying her emotional rollercoaster that lurches from amused affection to bewilderment to a sense of betrayal, but keeps steering back onto a track of deep and steady love for the person who was once her husband and is now more like a sister. In the end she’s a much more relatable, likeable and admirable character than Lili, who may be a brave pioneer traversing thorny and difficult ground, but seems to lose her ability to register anyone else’s struggles in the process.
Redmayne conveys the emergence of Lili from her cocoon with exquisite nuance, but fails to draw the viewer far enough inside the tumult of that experience. The more she becomes her true self, the more she distances herself – both from Gerda and from the viewer. Perhaps the director’s point here was to ensure that Lili is not portrayed as a “Mary Sue” heroine, but rather a normal human being with her share of faults – in this case, an increasingly avoidant relationship style, perhaps even narcissism. But the unfortunate result is that a movie with the best of intentions to make the transgender experience resonate with “cisgender” (comfortable in their own birth-bodies) audiences ultimately goes slightly awry, unintentionally promulgating stereotypes about men, women and people in transition between the two.