The Danish Girl (2016) (120 mins)
Director – Tom Hooper
Starring – Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts
Premise – A married couple’s romance wanes as the husband begins to develop beliefs that he is meant to be a woman.
The world is beginning to accept transgender people for what they are, but what has irritated many is that it has taken this long for someone so insignificant to the transgender community, in the form of Caitlyn Jenner, to provide awareness and approval when the struggle has been a long one with no success. Only in the last few years have there been real strides in consolidating a new image for transgenders, as well as in improving the safety of sex reassignment surgery. Thinking historically, seldom were there cases of gender mismatching because we have literally become conscious of it in recent years, but to think of one of the first transgender individuals is almost impossible. That’s where The Danish Girl comes in handy, because it has sought to bring further awareness to this cause by returning to where its modern push began in 1920s Copenhagen.
The Danish Girl is based on the lives of Danish painters Einar and Gerda Wegener, a married couple whose union physically deteriorates through the fact that Einar gradually reinvents himself as Lili Elbe, the female he feels he should have been from birth, blurring the boundaries between genders once he decides to put himself forward as the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, a life-threatening, untried operation that could easily kill him.
Considering its tender topic, I went into his film thinking Redmayne had bagged his second Oscar already considering this role is perhaps more challenging than portraying Stephen Hawking, but I was wrong, because he has flaws in his portrayal that overshadow an otherwise flawlessly sophisticated performance. Redmayne believably transforms his physical self once again, even if there are hints of Hawking still, and intimately builds a character whose change is a resonant journey from start to end. The only problem is that Redmayne is a bit too sentimental and hyperbolic that his hand and arm movements feel overstated and forced, creating a character we can value but cannot relish. Alicia Vikander is quite easily the best thing about The Danish Girl, but she will not make the same ripples as Redmayne come award season, even if she is quite sensational. Vikander is a pretty petite woman, quite innocent and sweet, but the fire she has in her belly is a fascinating trait that gives Gerda Wegener the convincing ability to support such a change till the very end.
The Danish Girl looks like something out of a Van Gogh museum, painting an idyllic atmosphere that contradicts the pain that is to be felt. Danny Cohen deserves credit here for adding an extension to the characters’ moods through his wonderful framing of backdrops, which is very much influenced by the characters and their emotions. This produces an overall effect of slothfulness that drowns its audience in sorrow because The Danish Girl provides only reasons to feel despair. It will be hard for people to identify with Lili here because transgenders are unique people with unique desires, therefore everyone else will understand Gerda’s point of view and the problems that arise for her. Seeing as her life is flipped upside-down she somehow manages to remain psychologically on top of her emotions and supports Lili until the very end, a tragic story in itself that 1 time out of 100 will get noticed as the real point of sadness in The Danish Girl.
The Danish Girl is a two-hour film, but it really feels like more because the repetition within Lili’s change is too pedestrian in investigating such a huge change within a human being. Einar’s mental state is rigorously investigated that just an hour is enough to completely understand the reasons that have stimulated his change. It is delved into so deeply that the rest of the film feels as if Einar has completed his transformation and can only reinforce the way Lily is feeling, stagnating its content that it persists without ever expanding.
Einar had a personality before his latent feelings corroded his original self, but as soon as he changes, develops these selfish and oblivious characteristics that I should say are repulsive on any ordinary human being, so how does Gerda put up with it? This drastic change occurs as a result of a pair of tights and an unworn dress, and soon has a timid Einar transformed into a fully-fledged, over-the-top caricature of a woman. The Danish Girl is so transfixed on showing Einar’s transformation that it forgets to engage properly with the change itself. By the end, The Danish Girl drills into us the importance in accepting and appreciating transgender people, but the film cannot shed new light on the reasons behind gender change. The Danish Girl shows how Lili changes as a person, but doesn’t get properly to grips with why he changes inside.
The Danish Girl is first and foremost a heart-wrenching love story that goes beyond the traditions of typical romantic stories both in terms of the fact that gender change is normally not a romantic tool, and that the lovers stay together through thick and thin up until the very end despite their differences. It is a challenging love story that takes unconventional turns because it isn’t the main element, yet we never forget the impact of this gender change upon their initially impenetrable relationship. Their pure affection that kicked off The Danish Girl is the reason they never broke apart, and the reason this story is given the oomph it deserves, otherwise it would have simply been a transgender film without the pathos that could open eyes and minds.
Tom Hooper directs The Danish Girl with a seasoned confidence that shows throughout every scene. The filmmakers have paid special attention to detail, both in terms of research and craft, and that is why The Danish Girl never sinks below its flaws because it is so well made, passionately too.
Thanks to Eddie Redmayne, and more so Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl is a far better romantic story than one about understanding transgenders and their thought processes, but one thing that will never leave you once the credits roll are the echoes of “Lili” drifting in the wind.