Something made with good intentions isn’t necessarily something that will turn out good itself. But should it be given credit for attempting to do something right? That’s the biggest issue I have with The Danish Girl, which tells the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. With transgender rights finally coming into the foreground of hot-button social issues, audiences are seeing an uptick in trans representation in media, both in individuals and in narratives. The timing for Elbe’s story to be told on film, then, comes at a moment where it’s more likely to garner interest. There’s a heart to the film, and a story that does hold some interest. It’s packaged, though, in a very delicate (and Oscar-baity) form, which strips the film of some of its potential power.
Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) are artists working in Copenhagen in 1926. While Einar has found success through his landscapes, Gerda is struggling to have her portraits seen. One day, when Gerda’s female model is late, she asks Einar to substitute for her by slipping into some women’s clothing items. This stirs a curiosity in Einar, who begins wearing women’s clothing occasionally. When they’re invited to a dinner party, Gerda convinces the reluctant Einar to come along by dressing him up as a woman who they’ll pretend is his cousin, named Lili. After the party, though, Einar finds he can’t deny that Lili feels more natural. As Lili begins to show blossom, Gerda struggles with how to support her husband when that ultimately means losing Einar to Lili.
The title of the film might seem like a reference to Lili, but it refers to Gerda just as much (if not slightly more; the film’s sole utterance of the title is in reference to Gerda, not Lili). Similarly, the film doesn’t focus heavily on one half of this couple over the other. If that were the case, the film would either be more open to scrutiny as a historical account (the film substantially differs from the couple’s historical records in many ways, particularly span of time) or a case of a transgender character existing just to educate a cisgender character. Instead, The Danish Girl is a love story first and foremost.
It’s an interesting take on the subject matter, to be sure. But the film doesn’t always get the balance right, and it becomes a larger problem as the film progresses. It’s critical for Einar to completely transition into Lili, and Gerda eventually realizes this. Once it happens, though, the film loses some of its narrative power. Lili begins to dominate the film, which runs counter to what the film has positioned as the story it wants to tell.
It’s a shame, because the earlier part of the film has some interesting displays of gender roles. There’s a dominance in Gerda that gives her power, and it influences her art and her approach to her art in a way that goes against “appropriate” feminine behavior at the time. When Lili makes her first outing, she discovers just how different being in the world – particularly around men – is as a woman. The film doesn’t explore these concepts with any substantial depth, but their inclusion is still important.
The way that the film is presented, though, is perhaps a touch too graceful. Einar’s meetings with doctors as he attempts to understand his need to be Lili are appropriately discomforting, but beyond that, there’s little in the way of conflict outside of Einar and Gerda. As other individuals find out about Lili, it’s accepted. That acceptance is certainly a worthy ideal for today, but it doesn’t feel exactly natural to this particular story in this period. The way that everything is presented visually doesn’t necessarily help, either. The film wants to make the story of a trans person palatable to a broader audience, and while being careful in telling the story of a trans person is admirable, the film acts like the subject matter is so fragile that it has to be told and shown delicately.
What saves the film, ultimately, are its pair of leading performances. For Eddie Redmayne, this is an interesting follow-up to his Oscar-winning turn in The Theory of Everything. Between these two roles, Redmayne shows an inordinate ability to create different characters through the way he carries his body or moves his eyes. As Lili appears more frequently, there’s a light in Redmayne’s eyes that shines even when Einar mentions Lili. It’s a technically gifted performance, highlighted by a full-frontal nude scene where Einar undresses in front of a mirror, examining his body and tucking his penis to physically appear like a woman.
Vikander balances the film with a far more emotionally charged performance. There’s a vividness to her Gerda that sells her relationship with Einar early on, even in the early days of Lili’s existence in their lives. As Lili becomes a bigger part of their lives, Gerda struggles with supporting her husband and wanting him to stay the same. It’s not easy in any way to let someone you love go, and Vikander brings an understandable vulnerability that’s mixed with surprising inner strength.
Redmayne and Vikander save The Danish Girl from its overall execution. It’s not bad, but it does suffer from being too tender with its story. There are clearly good intentions on display, but by trying to make this more palatable to audiences with zero or limited knowledge of trans people, it keeps the film from feeling real. The fact that the film touches just enough on elements to suggest that it might have been capable of showing something that feels more natural makes this decision all the more frustrating.