The Danish Girl: More Surface than Substance

Directed by Tom Hooper
Focus Films, 119 minutes, R (nudity, sexual themes)
* * *

The Danish Girl released at a time of new frankness over gender dysphoria, but it's hard to imagine it will do much to advance the cause of social acceptance. It tells the story of Lili Elbe, who in 1930 underwent what is thought to be the Western world's first male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery. It's a fascinating tale featuring luminous cinematography, but clouded by a muddy script.

Einar Wegener
Eddie Redmayne, winner of last year's Best Actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything, portrays Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe (1883-1931). As Wegener, Einar achieved minor renown as a painter in his native Denmark, as did his illustrator/painter wife, Gerda Gottlieb (1885-1940), whom he married in 1904. The Danish Girl opens in 1926, with Einar and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) living a life of lusty semi-poverty in Copenhagen. Their erotic bliss takes a dramatic U-turn when Gerda asks Einar to don women's stockings to help her finish a portrait for which her model was late. In the film, this awakens deep yearnings and doubts. When Gerda later suggests Einar dress as a woman as a lark for a party, that's all she wrote. In 1930, Einar went to Germany for operations that made him into Lili for real. In between, the film seeks to wrestle with Einar's pre-op disappearance into womanhood, the stresses on the Wegener marriage, Gerda's grudging acceptance of her husband's female identity, and her loyal (and way-too-modern) support for his decision to undergo risky medical procedures.

Einar/Lili in life
The script is a load of hogwash insofar as it purports to tell a true story. I'll get back to this, for first let's look at the film as film. Its surfaces are beautiful. Copenhagen is often colored in gray, but not Hooper's frames. The Wegeners' starkly furnished artist atelier serves to make the paintings being produced and backdrop draperies pop off the screen in lush textures and vibrant colors. Cafes are rendered with smoky ambience, ball gowns dazzle, and Lili's red hair and lipstick slash across the screen with such lurid tones as to prefigure the deep cut that will remove Einar's masculinity. Ms. Vikander is also stunning. Redmayne has gotten most of the ink, but Vikander's role is the harder of the two. Redmayne only needs to look the part, but Vikander has to demonstrate a convincing roller coaster ride of emotions. Toss in some sexual frustration, and it's pretty much the K├╝bler-Ross cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Would that Redmayne had Vikander's range. He's exceedingly androgynous normally, so it's not that hard to cross dress and physically pass as a woman. What we don't see is a whole lot of contemplation or conflict. It's as if we go from stockings to the knife with little in-between other than a crash course in how to act female. Of that—oh dear! I think the word "fay" (and "fey") might have been invented to describe the situation. We see Redmayne aping peep-show girls, staring at his penis-tucked-away nude body in a mirror, and other such activities, but his mannerisms are more those of a swishy late 20th century gay man than they are those of an early 20th century female. He also seeks to go back and forth between Einar and Lili, but this often plays like Sibyl and Dr. Jekyll go voguing.  

Lucinda Coxon's script doesn't help matters. Viewers should be aware that the script was based on a novel by David Ebershoff, not a biography. Any time one sees the words "based on a true story," skepticism is in order. So let's set the facts straight (pun intended). Biographers believe that Einar and Gerda probably had a lavender marriage. In the film, Lili rebuffs advances from Henrik (Ben Whishaw) who recognizes her as Einar in drag. No such character existed, but fragmentary evidence suggests Einar would have welcomed such an assignation. Nor was there any such character as Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), Einar's childhood friend/flirt and Gerda's alleged post-Einar lover. Gerda painted Lili, bur she was best known for lesbian erotica and was probably lesbian or bisexual. (She remarried after her marriage to Einar was annulled, but to an Italian pilot, not a Danish art dealer, and it was brief.)

The worst deception concerns Lili's death. In the film she dies after a second operation to fashion a vagina. Not so, nor was Gerda with him after his original penectomy. Lili had four operations, the last of which was fatal: a uterus transplant. The idea at the time was that Lili could become a biological woman capable of childbirth. We are still miles from that possibility and, today, only one born a woman can undergo what is still experimental surgery. All of this is to say that The Danish Girl pulls too many punches because it's serving a 21st century agenda, not retelling 1931 history.

Filmmakers are, of course, under no compulsion to produce historical works. My regret is that neither Hooper nor Redmayne cast enough magic to cover their ahistorical tracks. This isn't a bad film, just an average one. Given such extraordinary material, it should have been more than just a single breakout performance (Vikander) and pretty surfaces.
Rob Weir 

Gerda painting of Lili

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