Sometimes after I see a movie, I don’t immediately know if I liked it. This is actually not that common, because it usually means there was a conflict in my opinion. Perhaps I liked the acting but not the story, or I liked the action but found the performances clichéd. Could be anything, but usually I have to end up acknowledging that a movie with good and bad is probably going to be something other people will like or hate better a lot more than I did.
The Danish Girl comes from director Tom Hooper, who directed Les Misérables, which I didn’t really like, based on the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff. The book was a fictionalized adaptation of the real life of Lili Elbe (played by Eddie Redmayne in the movie) who was a transgender Danish woman and among the first to have gender reassignment surgery way back in 1930. An adaptation of that book is this movie, but “has it both ways.” By this I mean it retains the original characters from the book that didn’t exist in real life but also reverts some of the changes made in the book.
The movie focuses on two artists in Copenhagen, a married couple: there’s Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (changed to an American named Greta in the book), played by Alicia Vikander. Einar’s transformation happens slowly. We start just by seeing their relationship, two people very much in love. One day, when the female model Greta was planning to use for her artwork is late, she asks her husband to use stockings and a dress for the picture. But soon after, she catches him wearing her undergarments. Gerda is clearly confused by it, but she loves her husband and doesn’t really mind … at first.
Einar begins to dress up entirely as a woman, going by the name Lili Elbe, explaining that he has always felt like a girl in a man’s body. Things get more complicated after that when Gerda reconnects with her old friend, and now art dealer, Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts). Hans is clearly still in love with Gerda, but is now the target of Lili’s affections — which are not particularly wanted by Hans, or so it seems. More and more tension is increased as the movie goes on, and we have two real points of conflict.
One is the obvious, the struggle for Lili to find her true self in a time where it was nearly impossible to do so. Eddie Redmayne does a fine job here, and the movie plays up his delicate features to have a more convincing woman than the actual historical Lili. But I don’t really feel like the characterization really embraces the nuance and pain at the center of Lili’s struggle, because often the movie is quite cold and unfeeling. It’s a beautiful movie without much emotion, with one notable exception.
Gerda’s struggle is the one to watch here, and Alicia Vikander is a marvel as the wife who worries she’s losing her husband in a way she doesn’t really understand. She never loses her love for Einar/Lili, but it becomes harder and harder, especially as Lili’s desire for surgery becomes dangerous and overly pushing. Alicia Vikander was the standout performance for me, perhaps because she seemed real and honest, like a real person (perhaps like the real Gerda).
Tom Hooper, the director, seems to me like he often has movies that are built with a lot of care and precision, but the emotion is still lacking. That was definitely the case for me with Les Misérables, which also had a few very good acting performances to elevate everything else. The themes were muted or obvious, and the writing a bit simplistic. When I found out screenwriter Lucinda Coxon was better known for her plays, it all made a bit more sense, because the interactions often seemed designed for the stage.
As a stage play, I think The Danish Girl would’ve worked better, but then we wouldn’t have the perfectly designed sets and costumes! I guess what I’m saying is that the production team was a bit enamored with the subject matter and time period, and didn’t spend enough time forming complex characters. It’s not a bad movie, but it could’ve been a lot better. Still, it does tell a fascinating story about a transgender woman when it was even less accepted than now, and deserves credit for succeeding at all.