The title seems almost a misnomer in The Danish Girl, director Tom Hooper‘s thoroughly English bio-drama of groundbreaking transgender figure Lili Elbe and the artist wife who stood by her husband Einar Wegener throughout his long and difficult transition to live as a woman. The correctness and careful sensitivity of the film’s approach seem somehow a limitation in an age when countless indie and cable TV projects dealing with thematically related subject matter have led us to expect a little more edge. But if the movie remains safe, there’s no questioning its integrity, or the balance of porcelain vulnerability and strength that Eddie Redmayne brings to the lead role.
Leaving aside complaints in the LGBTQ community about the lack of authenticity or courage in having a cisgender actor portray transgender experience, the film’s reluctance to shock or offend will no doubt boost its appeal for middlebrow art house audiences. As will Focus Features’ inevitable awards push around the Nov. 27 U.S. release.
Adapted by Lucinda Coxon from American novelist David Ebershoff‘s partly fictionalized account of Elbe’s life, published in 2000, the film begins in Copenhagen in 1926, six years after Wegener’s marriage to Gerda (Alicia Vikander). He’s an in-demand landscape painter, while she’s struggling to gain a foothold in the art market with her undistinguished portraits.
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That changes when, fresh from a stinging rejection, Gerda asks Einar to stand in for her absent model, their glamorous ballerina friend Ulla (Amber Heard). He obligingly dons stockings and jeweled slippers, responding with evident pleasure to the tactile sensation of silk and satin against his skin. Gerda also finds new inspiration, and the resulting sketches and paintings capture the attention of a previously indifferent art dealer.
It’s in this early action hammering the point of the Wegeners‘ rapturously happy marriage that Hooper’s grasp and Coxon’s writing are most uninteresting. There’s plenty of obvious foreshadowing, such as Redmayne distractedly running his fingers over fur and tulle in the wardrobe racks at the ballet. But even if Gerda’s initial encouragement of Einar’s cross-dressing is accurately depicted as a bohemian game, it’s more than a half-hour before even a glimmer of conflict creeps into what seems at first like a frisky romp.
The shift occurs when Lili, as Einar’s emerging true self has been playfully dubbed by Ulla, gets a nosebleed after being kissed at a party by persistent suitor Henrik (Ben Whishaw), a transgression witnessed by the previously unflappable Gerda. Despite Henrik getting lumped with some on-the-nose dialogue concerning a conveniently placed oak tree (“They say you can eat its acorns and become anyone you want”), the drama in general acquires more teeth from this point on.
Redmayne is at his finest in the midsection, as Einar’s attempts to honor Gerda’s wishes and remove the escalating confusion from their marriage prove futile. Some of the loveliest moments of his performance are when the actor quietly disappears into Lili, with a coy smile, a delicate hand gesture, a studied rearrangement of the drape of her arm or the positioning of her feet on the floor. Later in the film, too, when the couple returns to Copenhagen after a spell in Paris, there’s an understated emotional surge in seeing Lili go to work behind a chic department store perfume counter, radiating happiness at being a woman among other women. And watching Einar, still alternating in outer presentation as Lili, timidly studying sensual female body language in a Paris peepshow is one of the film’s most exquisite and indelible scenes.
These gentle observations are no less affecting than the more dramatic — but also more prosaically presented — developments, when Lili realizes that continuing co-existence with Einar is impossible. She ventures to Dresden to undertake the risky and largely unprecedented step of gender confirmation surgery with a pioneering German doctor (Sebastian Koch).
Dramatic license dictates that details of the complex surgical procedure have been simplified, as has the later life of Lili and the end of her marriage to Gerda. Coxon tends to spell out in dialogue notes that are already implicit in the performances, particularly concerning the couple’s unique partnership. Lili becomes the muse who inspires Gerda to do her best work, while Gerda’s brush in turn makes Lili more beautiful.
The tender symmetry of this unconventional exchange is nicely captured by Vikander (the sole actual Scandinavian actor among the principals), along with Gerda’s internal fight to balance her need for the man she married with her deeply compassionate desire to liberate Lili. But the film’s intimate focus on the shifting dualities between Einar and Lili inevitably means that Vikander’s character has less dimension. The same goes for Whishaw’s role and for Matthias Schoenaerts as Hans, Einar’s boyhood friend and early crush who has since become a wealthy Paris art dealer.
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Aside from saturation use of Alexandre Desplat‘s lush score, Hooper avoids the lumbering, overemphatic qualities that made his Les Miserables such a snore. One might have wished for a more adventurous approach to this moving story, particularly at a time when transgender representation has taken over from gay rights as the next equality frontier. On the other hand, maybe the film’s conventionality is exactly what’s needed at this time to enlighten mainstream audiences on transgender issues? For a story about two artists, it might also have been legitimate to expect a more painterly quality to the visuals. However, aside from establishing shots of wintry Danish landscapes and dockside fish markets, the look is standard-issue polished period piece, with handsome but unremarkable production design by Eve Stewart and more striking costumes by Paco Delgado.
Ultimately, the film’s chief strength is as a vehicle for Redmayne, following his Theory of Everything Oscar win with another full-immersion physical and emotional transformation into a brave real-life figure.
Production companies: Working Title Films, Pretty Pictures, in association with ReVision Pictures, Senator Global Productions
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriter: Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel by David Ebershoff
Producers: Gail Mutrux, Anne Harrison, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tom Hooper
Executive producers: Linda Reisman, Ulf Israel, Kathy Morgan, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Eve Stewart
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editor: Melanie Ann Oliver
Casting: Nina Gold
No rating, 120 minutes.