This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Venice Film Festival.
Is it permissible to be glad that a film exists, admiring of some of its elements, delighted that it will get a massive release, even OK with it probably winning a million bajillion awards, and to not like it? Tom Hooper‘s “The Danish Girl” is so inarguably Oscar-ready that already in the frenzied minutes after its Venice Film Festival premiere the debate has whipped past the seemingly obvious nominations, like Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor, and currently hovers somewhere around whether Alicia Vikander should be campaigned for Supporting Actress, where she’ll have a better chance, or Lead Actress, where she belongs. Mind you, we’ll probably be beyond that again in a few paragraph’s time.
While it’s easy to be sniffy in an “obvious awards bait is obvious” kind of way, the fact is that both actors are very good, even if trapped in the amber of Hooper’s overweeningly tasteful direction. If the affectations of his style, especially reteamed with “The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables” DP Danny Cohen, have become deeply irksome to those of us weary of the precise formula that period prestige pictures like this all adhere to now, it’s almost completely irrelevant: the thing to be glad for is that Oscar-winning prestige pic director Tom Hooper decided, out of all the stories he could have told, to give this one his particular gloss of mainstream acceptability and accessibility. The inevitable awards push will only serve to make it even more a must-see movie for the exact people who would not otherwise be exposed to this story. It may be Transgenderism for Beginners, but then most people are beginners when it comes to trans issues.
As you probably already know, “The Danish Girl,” adapted by Lucinda Coxon from the novel by David Ebershoff, details the story of Lili Elbe, the first person ever to undergo what was previously called Sex Reassignment Surgery, but is now, our press notes tell us, better referred to as Gender Confirmation Surgery. Whatever the terminology, the film follows Lili (Redmayne) from the mid-1920s when she was living in Copenhagen as Einar Wegener, a successful landscape painter very much in love with wife and fellow painter Gerda (Vikander). Through a series of happenstances, Gerda and Einar develop a “game” where Einar dresses as a woman, dubbed ‘Lili’ by their arch ballerina friend Ulla (Amber Heard, maybe the archest ballerina ever). But it soon becomes far more than a game to Einar, who, much to Gerda’s dismay, finds not only will Lili not go away (they tacitly agree to refer to her as if she were a third person), he doesn’t want her to. A tentative flirtation with Ben Whishaw‘s Henrik ends abruptly when Lili realizes that Whishaw’s attraction is based on her being a man dressed as a woman, and not that he truly believes her to be female. Meanwhile, despite the growing rift in their previously idyllic relationship, Gerda’s paintings of Lili have become a sensation and the couple move to Paris, where they reconnect with Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) an old friend of Einar’s at just the time when Lili is beginning to take over Einar entirely.
It is portrayed as something like possession for a while, with Gerda at one point desperately asking Lili if she can have her husband back just for a while, if he is in there. But it’s a possession that cannot be exorcized, as doctor after doctor classifies Lili as insane leading to one narrow escape through a window as men charge down a corridor carrying a straitjacket — as achingly, sentimentally sensitive as the film is to Lili’s painful process of self-actualization, narratively subtle it is not.
Which is, again, both the reason some of us might find it hard to embrace, but it’s also the key to its probable success, which may not be deserved for the film it is, but could well be important for society at large. And to be fair, there are moments that introduce interesting, provocative undercurrents. A scene of Gerda painting a man’s portrait may be an unusually “big” moment from Vikander, but in it she talks in almost dominatrix terms, about how difficult it can be for a man to “submit to the female gaze,” which feels peculiarly pointed. The frequent (or far too prevalent, if you’re not on its wavelength) mirror and reflection shots meet their apotheosis in a peep show sequence where Lili, as Einar, mimics the motions of the performing girl, and they watch each other — there’s a prevalent sense of narcissism and the blurred lines between oneself and the object of one’s attraction (Gerda says at one point that “kissing [Einar] was like kissing myself”) that is intriguing. Even more knottily, early on Henrik talks of how Lili is “old-fashioned,” and indeed instead of painting for a living, she takes a job as a perfume salesgirl, saying, “I want to be a woman, not a painter.” But when Gerda gently reminds her that it is possible to be both, like she is, it’s played for a gentle laugh and dismissed. Really investigating the kind of womanhood that Lili aspires to is simply a bridge too far complication-wise for a film that wants to keep everyone onside. And again, that’s probably a necessary decision even if it makes it less interesting: for the audience for which “The Danish Girl is designed, it probably is too much to serve up a gentle introduction to transgenderism, and then to immediately problematize and complicate it.
So we’re left with a film that nods to, but then delicately looks away from anything that threatens to steer the narrative away from the single note of Finding The Courage To Be Yourself. Within this formula, which involves a great deal of face-cradling and whispering on the part of Redmayne (it’s such an externalized performance), the MVP is actually Vikander, although the set and costume designers are probably also clearing space on their mantelpieces, while Alexandre Desplat‘s score (he also worked on “The King’s Speech“) is the Platonic ideal for this kind of film — melancholic and melodic, with occasional hints of fairytale.
Social change starts on the fringes, but it needs films like “The Danish Girl” to push those issues in from the sides to the middle, and to normalize them for a mainstream audience who have other things in their lives than hunting out the latest experimental LGBT title. So yes, we might wish there were less of the feeling of Hooper, smelling salts on hand, gently settling the grandparents of the world onto lavender-scented chaise longues in order to tell them a story about how a person who looks and talks and lives as a man might actually be a woman. But “The Danish Girl” is so primly told (bar perhaps one tucking scene), and it treads so delicately around even the most conservative sensibilities, that it might just work to change some minds, which makes it valuable in a way an edgier, swifter, more urgent, individual, or exciting film (for it is none of those things) might not be. And you do not have to like it to believe that is true. [B-/C+]