Ever since the first photo of Eddie Redmayne in his The Danish Girl role I’ve been jealous of how good he looks. He makes a more convincing woman that I do. Although, I agree with the people questioning how right it was that a cis man was picked to play trans woman Lili Elbe.
Just to make sure things are as confusing as possible, The Danish Girl is the fictional story of real-life transwoman Lili Elbe. Adapted from David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name, it tells is loosely based on Elbe’s life. Elbe, born Einar Wegener, was a successful Danish artist and married to fellow painter Gerda Gottlieb. After stepping in to pose for one of Gerda’s portraits wearing stockings and heels, Lili began to present herself as a woman more often. Over time and with the support of her wife, Elbe underwent surgery to become one of the first people to have gender reassignment surgery.
The film is directed by Tom Hooper who delighted with his period drama The King’s Speech back in 2010. This time he is back on equally epic form to show a picture perfect vision of Denamrk and Paris in the early 1900s. There is no doubt about it, The Danish Girl is an absolutely beautiful film. Every frame looks like a fucking painting. Hooper and his team have created something visually stunning, there can be no doubt about that, but have they shown us the true story of a trans woman’s struggle?
For one thing, why is the narrative taken from Ebershoff’s book rather than being more interested in facts? Ebershoff used the real-life story but changed whatever details he wanted in order to make his American audience more likely to pick up his novel. There are several factual errors in his depiction that have made it into the film. This might not be such a major problem if it wasn’t having the end result of making Elbe’s transition seem so fucking romantic. It all seems so easy and straightforward. Yes, there are some minor problems to overcome but there is very little represented here of Lili’s internal struggle and the physical burden that the surgery put on her.
Now I’m not suggesting that Hooper should have gone down the graphic, bloody route and shown us the inner workings of procedure but the film should at least give a sense of how pioneering and dangerous the whole thing would have been. The narrative takes place in a romantic haze. As a film that wanted to touch upon an important subject and get people thinking, it’s just a bit too twee. I understand that the subject is still a controversial one but there was no need for Hooper to hold back quite so much. It all seems a bit pathetic really.
Take Redmayne’s performance for example. The actor who blew so many people away with his portrayal of Stephen Hawking is now looking more like Hugh Laurie as Georgina in Blackadder Goes Forth. Redmayne’s performance is all simpering and pouting. It’s not nuanced but entirely made up of the most stereotypical feminine mannerisms. His time spent as Lili amounts to lowering his gaze, fluttering his lashes and smiling meekly. We learn nothing of the character herself or her inner thoughts. The film focuses on highlighting her outer beauty as though it was the only driving force for the transition. It is a performance that completely misses the fucking point.
That’s not to say his performance is terrible. Beneath the awful drag performance, Redmayne offers some tender moments. A scene in a Paris peep show when Lili, before her operation, copies the movements of the young woman on show is just beautiful. Equally, Alicia Vikander gives a strong performance as the suffering Gerda who is constantly forced to re-evaluate her marriage with her decision her husband makes. It’s not as if The Danish Girl is a terrible film. It’s heart is always in the right place but it just never pulls any real punches.
Everything about the film has been done in a certain way to increase sympathy for Lili whilst never really getting to the real bones of the matter. Hooper is earnest in his storytelling but sugarcoats everything a little too much. The score does nothing to help and is as unsubtle as it is possible to be. This is a film that is forcing emotions upon you without ever really giving you a reason to feel them. It is too safe and doesn’t give such a complex issue the treatment it deserves.