It’s sometimes considered an axiom of film criticism that you review the film its creators made rather than they one you wish they’d made. But with “The Danish Girl,” which was unveiled over the weekend at Venice and Telluride and will have its official North American premiere in Toronto this week, it’s not simply a matter of wondering what, say, Edgar Wright’s “Ant-Man” or David Fincher’s “Steve Jobs” might have looked like. Since the minute Eddie Redmayne was cast as Lili Elbe, a trans woman who was one of the first to undergo what is now known as gender confirmation surgery, critics and activists have decried the choice to use a cisgender actor in the role — a part, incidentally, once considered for Nicole Kidman. Redmayne, who researched the part extensively, has approached the transgender community with due deference, and director Tom Hooper has said he “would champion any shift where the industry embraces trans actors. and celebrates trans film-makers,” pointing out that he cast dozens of trans actors as extras and in small roles. The implicit argument is that movies like “The Danish Girl” will either be made with cis actors in the lead roles or they won’t be made at all. But is that true, and if it is, is it possible it might be better not to make them? Transition stories present a special challenge, one that “Orange Is the New Black” met by casting Laverne Cox’s twin brother as her character’s pre-transition self. But that problem could be solved by moving past Hollywood’s almost monolithic attraction to transitioning, with its prefab metaphors of self-discovery, and dealing with characters, and actors, who are already trans, and whose conflicts aren’t solely defined by their gender identity.
Reviewing “The Danish Girl” presents critics with a dilemma, or at least a tricky navigational challenge. Some argue that in the year of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and “Tangerine,” a Sundance crowd-pleaser that stars trans women Mya Taylor and Kitana Rodriguez, Hollywood is out of excuses (an argument that might apply equally to the TV series “Transparent”). Others suggest that it takes middle-of-the-road entertainments to move society forward, and “The Danish Girl” will reach audiences that “I Am Cait” simply does not. (“Tangerine’s” U.S. box office is just over $600,000; “The Danish Girl’s” budget is reported as $15 million.) “It may be Transgenderism for Beginners,” writes the Playlist’s Jessica Kiang, “but then most people are beginners when it comes to trans issues.” You could look at the reviews as a referendum on whether critics think movies need to educate their audiences or audiences need to educate themselves.
The danger with the latter position is that it’s easy to slide into being an apologist for the status quo, or to risk sounding like one of the critics who praised Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” whose reputation had already begun to turn sour before its Best Picture win and now stands, just over a decade later, as one of the Academy’s canonical embarrassments. Reviews that praise Alicia Vikander’s performance as Lili’s wife, Gerda, who struggles with and eventually comes to accept her husband’s true self, subtly hint that the movie’s real point of identification is not Lili, however sympathetic she may be, but the character who watches from outside and is changed by the experience — the movie’s cis audiences, in other words. That may be an accurate characterization, but there’s something deeply discomfiting in a high-profile movie about a trans character whose trans audiences are only let in through the side door.
There will, of course, be thinkpieces galore as “The Danish Girl” continues its path towards a late November opening and its all-but-certain march towards next year’s Oscars. But as those who’ve argued that critics of “The Danish Girl” should wait to see the movie start to do just that, they should be aware that the terms they’re setting are being watched closely, and may have an effect beyond the rise or fall of a single film.
Reviews of “The Danish Girl”
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
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. 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?
Peter Debruge, Variety
Clearly, this was never not going to be a “prestige” picture. And while that ultra-respectful approach will engender allergic reactions in some, who’d sooner see a gritty, realistic portrayal — a la Jill Soloway’s terrific “Transparent” series for Amazon — than one seemingly tailored for the pages of fashion and interior-design magazines, there’s no denying that Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon have delivered a cinematic landmark, one whose classical style all but disguises how controversial its subject matter still remains. For rowdier crowds, there will always be “Myra Breckinridge.” In order to penetrate the conversation of “polite” society, however, one must play by its rules, and “The Danish Girl” is nothing if not sensitive to how old-fashioned viewers (and voters) might respond, scrubbing the story of its pricklier details and upholding the long-standing LGBT-movie tradition of tragically killing off the “monster” in the end.
Alonso Duralde, The Wrap
For all its period setting and opulence, “The Danish Girl” is less removed from our own era than you might think; the physical violence and medical ignorance that Lili faces over the course of her evolution remain in place today. And while this film should by no means be the last word on an under-explored subject in mainstream cinema, it makes an interesting guidepost toward bolder stories in the future.
Jonathan Romney, Guardian
Einar/Lili is played by Eddie Redmayne, who is certain to reap plentiful laurels in the forthcoming awards season, with another role — following his Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” — about a slow process of physical and psychological transformation. And no doubt this sumptuously mounted, high-minded and unabashedly Oscar-baiting undertaking will overall emerge dripping with honours. But well-meaning and polished as it is, “The Danish Girl” is a determinedly mainstream melodrama that doesn’t really offer new perspectives its theme; and in the year of Caitlyn Jenner, it’s a theme on which mainstream audiences are ready for more trenchant insight.
Jessica Kiang, The Playlist
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.
Geoffrey Macnab, Independent
At times, the film feels too well-mannered and tasteful. Costume and production design are immaculate, in best heritage-movie fashion – but often a little fussy, too. You could easily imagine “The Danish Girl” being made in a far rawer, more stylized and stridently melodramatic way by a film-maker such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He would have egged up scenes like the early one in which we see Einar hiding his penis between his legs, or the later one in which he is assaulted by homophobic thugs. Instead, Hooper aims for subtlety and understatement. Some of its visual gambits – notably the poetic shots of Lili’s scarf floating on the wind – verge on the trite.
Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com
While “The Danish Girl” is scrupulous in its 21st-century Distinguished Film tastefulness — my, the gorgeous cinematography, gee, the nuanced but nevertheless heartstring-tugging Alexandre Desplat score — it is also largely free of special pleading. Its signal virtue is in not treating Einar Wegener, Redmayne’s character, as a Special Other, or in slavering Straight Person Compassion on him or her. At its best moments it maintains a discreet detachment.
Dave Calhoun, Time Out
“The Danish Girl” is meticulously made – not a hair is out of place. What Hooper fails to do is get to grips with sexual identity in any way that’s intellectually or emotionally provocative or surprising. That makes for a cold, pretty, delicate movie – one that too often relies on scene-stealing production design or the overwhelmingly insipid score for its otherwise strikingly absent emotional power.
Nicholas Barber, BBC
“The Danish Girl” ends by sandblasting away every last trace of ambiguity. First we have Lili announcing, “I am… entirely… myself.” Then Hooper makes use of a deeply symbolic silk scarf. And then, just in case anyone in the cinema is still not sure what the film has been about, there is a final, painstakingly worded caption: “Lili’s pioneering story can be thought of as paving the way for the modern transgender movement.” Yes, obviously it can. But it might have been better if Lili’s story could be thought of as, well, Lili’s story. She deserves to have been portrayed as an actual person rather than a shiny monument to a cause.
Robbie Collin, Telegraph
“I believe I am a woman,” Lili says haltingly, as if the words still strike her as somehow embarrassing, or ridiculous. Gerda turns to the doctor and says very calmly: “I believe it too.” That, perhaps even more so than the surgery, is the transformation that counts.
Demetrios Matheou, Thompson on Hollywood
I’d argue that Lili is a better performance than Redmayne’s Oscar-winning Stephen Hawking. The Brit happens to have such delicate features that when Einar emerges as Lily she is remarkably convincing as a woman (even if that’s not really the point); more importantly, Redmayne also has a delicate range of expression that can suggest Lili’s myriad feelings – the bewilderment, sadness, excitement, fear – in such a way that we accept the emotional tumult, are deeply moved by it, yet never feel that we’re being assaulted by histrionics or confection. The actor has a power of empathy that results in consummate subtlety – a skill that’s easily taken for granted.
John Bleasdale, Cine-Vue
There’s a valid film to be made here about a heroic figure of the transgender movement. However, Hooper continues to burnish his prestige cinema credentials following the successes of “The King’s Speech” and “Les Misérables,” shooting a film that is overwhelmed by its own visual wealth. Costume and make-up Oscar nominations could be posted immediately as the film foregrounds these elements as part of its narrative. Danny Cohen’s cinematography aspires to a painterly beauty but there are moments when the sumptuousness becomes intrusive — the tactile fetishism a little dull. Vikander is initially annoying in an over-fussy performance, a bit like a young Emma Thompson, but later on her humour becomes a necessary antidote to the high melodrama that drowns the stage with tears. Redmayne, by contrast, seems lost in the role and not only due to his initial gender confusion. Just as feminists occasionally rail against transvestites for reproducing a misogynistic performance of womanhood, so Redmayne bats his eyelids and flashes a nervous smile, looking for all the world like Jessica Chastain.
Zhuo-Ning Su, The Film Stage
This being a Hooper film, everything looks and sounds exceedingly agreeable as expected. Danny Cohen’s cinematography, in particular, captures the soft texture and lovely hues of the Danish harbor city to delicious effect. The production and costume designs, from the Oscar-nominated teams behind “The King’s Speech” and “Les Misérables,” make no bold statements in their choices but pretty they certainly are. All these acting and technical achievements ultimately culminate in a whole that feels decidedly less than ambitious and way too eager to please. Considering it tells such a singular and important story, one only wishes “The Danish Girl” could have been made with a lot more edge and not the usual Academy-friendly faux-progressiveness.
Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily
The film’s most obvious appeal to audiences will be as a love story, with the interplay between Redmayne and Vikander centrally effective. Unfortunately, they don’t always seem to be acting together, or in the same film. Vikander stresses Gerda’s sexual and social confidence, but makes the character’s knowingness too archly emphatic throughout. Redmayne’s performance, meanwhile, comes across as narcissistic in a way that his Stephen Hawking, in “The Theory of Everything,” was not. That’s unavoidable, no doubt, in a film whose protagonist spends so much time examining his/her body language, but he’s overdependent on a range of coy moves and gestures that may make viewers feel that they’re being flirted with a little strenuously.