★ ★ ½
The Danish Girl tells the real-life story of transgender painter Einar Wegener’s transition into Lili Elbe, a woman who underwent one of the first sex-reassignment surgeries in the early 1930s. As the movie opens, Einar (Eddie Redmayne) is happily married to portrait artist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), and the two paint and live together in Copenhagen. When one of Gerda’s female models fails to show up at the couple’s home for a painting one day, the shy Einar steps in, donning pantyhose and a dress so Gerda can paint the portrait, and a monumental change occurs. Einar begins going to parties styled as a woman named Lili Elbe, which soon becomes her new identity. As Lili’s transition grows increasingly integrated into her everyday life, her marriage to Gerda assumes a secondary importance. While struggling with her spouse’s transformation, Gerda remains a steadfast source of support for Lili, although she slowly realizes that the person she married might be gone forever. Lili is condemned by medical professionals in Denmark as mentally ill, so the couple travel to France in search of a doctor who is more understanding of her wish to physically transition from a man to a woman. She then undergoes a series of controversial and experimental surgeries, including some of the first documented gender-reassignment procedures, in order to fully become Lili.
Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) tells this tale with comfort and ease, aided by the warm, easy-on-the-eyes cinematography by Danny Cohen. But despite terrific performances from Redmayne and Vikander, The Danish Girl feels more like a bullet-point outline of a story than an affecting drama about real human beings. Redmayne doesn’t show any signs of being an individual wrestling with her gender identity at the outset. It’s only when Einar feels the lace of the modelling dress on her fingertips that it all suddenly clicks into place; this might be accurate according to Lili’s own writings, but it feels like a reductive sentiment. Had the film painted her hardships as emerging from a lifetime of self-doubt and internal struggles, viewers would have been more invested in her journey. In real life, Lili was tormented during her five gender-reassignment surgeries (the movie only portrays two), and had planned to commit suicide prior to arranging the final experimental operations, which ultimately resulted in her death in 1931.
This underscores the larger problem with The Danish Girl: It’s a beautifully stylized telling of a true story, but its central topics are hardly broached by Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (who adapted the script from a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff). Lili went through hell during her procedures, both physically and mentally, yet the film glosses over these adversities in favor of a tightly wrapped narrative. The movie attempts to skate by on Redmayne’s androgynous beauty and its own dramatic flair, which causes the narrative to suffer.
It might be overly cynical to assume that Hooper hoped to make a calculated pitch towards the Academy by capitalizing on the recent spotlight on the transgender community. Yet while Lili’s story is captivating, it’s one that needed to be told with more boldness and less acquiescence to the potentially offended. The Danish Girl is far too purified of human struggle to be deeply felt; instead, it’s just a collection of stunning actors going through the motions in front of a gorgeously shot backdrop full of missed potential.