**1/2 out of ****
for some sexuality and full nudity
Released: November 27, 2015 limited; expands December 25
Runtime: 120 minutes
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Amber Head, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch
Transgender sexuality has vaulted to the forefront of our cultural conversation. It’s as charged and divisive as any social issue today. But as the new period piece The Danish Girl shows, transgender history – and gender reassignment specifically – goes back nearly a hundred years.
A topic normally ghettoed to fringe indie fare, The Danish Girl stands as the first attempt to make a transgender story accessible to the masses. It does so by crafting an elegant Masterpiece Theatre styled melodrama, set in 1920s Denmark, and girds it with the collaboration of two recent Oscar winners. The result is some of the best work by both, but also one that stays so close to present progressive sensibilities that its message will only play to its choir, and not challenge anyone either inside or out of it.
The Danish Girl is director Tom Hooper’s best feature film to date, relatively speaking (following the schmaltzy, drastically-overrated Academy Award winning hogwash that was The King’s Speech, and the mess that was Les Miserables), but it’s weighed down by a script that can’t help but pander with dialogue that resorts to contemporary PC talking points. (Explicit nudity and sexuality will also cause more conservative viewers to squirm.)
It’s based on the true story of husband and wife Einar & Gerda Wegener, played by Eddie Redmayne (the reigning Best Actor winner for The Theory Of Everything) and Alicia Vikander (2015’s It Girl, who made a splash this past spring in the critically-lauded indie sci-fier Ex Machina). It follows Einer’s transformation into a woman, named Lili Elbe, and how that challenges Einer & Gerda’s love for each other. It also explores a transgender’s sense of self-perception, such as how Einer speaks about Lili in the third person, as if referring to a close friend.
Both Einer and Gerda are painters, and after Gerda asks Einer (on a lark) to pose as a female for one of her portraits, a latent gender dysphoria within Einer is opened. Unable to shake the growing internal conflict, Einer begins dressing as a woman in secret before testing the ability to pass himself off as one in public.
In true Oscar bait fashion, it’s the most flagrant fictionalization of a real-life romance since Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind, redefining a much more complex relationship (Gerda was a lesbian in real life) into an easily palatable and affirming one. It speaks more to how Hooper is soft-pedaling the truth to audiences and Academy constituents (even if understandably), but not to the veracity or integrity of the actors.
Redmayne and Vikander put more faith and conviction into the material than Hooper, screenwriter Lucinda Coxon, or distributor Focus Features do, as they share a generous chemistry. Plus, as Einer gazes at his fully nude frame to find the Lili within it, Redmayne’s also the only one here taking any actual risks.
Still, even in turning Gerda into a conflicted heterosexual wife, the script creates palpable tension and emotional upheaval within that approach. It’s not the true story, but it’s a fascinating one. The most intriguing conflicts come early on as Gerda struggles to accept what Einer is becoming. For her it’s a real betrayal, and the film renders Gerda’s inner turmoil with as much sympathy as it does Einer’s. It’s about truth and lies in a marriage, and confronting them.
The whole effort starts to take a more simplistic arc, however, as Gerda inevitably sacrifices her own dispositions and desires to help Einer transition to Lili. Not only does this make matters a bit too easy (while resorting to more typical, sometimes violent bigotries for dramatic friction), it often provides sentimental wish fulfillment, from Einer’s public excursions as Lili that fool everyone (every man at the ball ogles her), to Gerda and Einer being granted safety nets in the form of boyfriends who understand and support them both. By the final act, there’s a full Team Lili.
Yet even with all of the punches pulled, The Danish Girl still boasts a sophisticated artistry and talented ensemble, which also includes Lili’s lover Henrik (Ben Whishaw, the current James Bond’s Q), Gerda’s lover Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts, who makes another strong impression following this year’s Carey Mulligan period romance Far From The Madding Crowd), and Gerda’s bestie Ulla (Amber Heard, in a surprisingly believable – and playful – aristocratic persona that’s in sharp contrast to the more pulpy nature of her career).
The sets, costumes, and cinematography make for the lush visuals you’d expect (and want), and even Hooper’s penchant for extreme wide-angle frames feel more purposeful than excessive, as they reflect the psychological inverse of Einer/Lili’s overwhelmed psychology. All-in-all, the work by those in front of and on the camera elevate those behind it.
While Lili is not ultimately killed by transphobes of the time, the filmmakers look to make her an early martyr-of-sorts for the movement, particularly as it gets into barbaric attempts at “curing” Einer’s dysphoria, as well as pioneering high-risk sex change procedures (which could be almost Frankensteinian).
Those sympathetic to the transgender cause will be swept up by The Danish Girl, and those who aren’t mostly won’t, although viewers in both camps will find some of the sexual exploration silly (even over-the-top) at times, dramatically heightened when it should be sensitively underplayed (many heterosexual period dramas are guilty of the same). In the end, The Danish Girl may pick up some awards (even deservedly so), but it’s unlikely to make a lasting impact.