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Review: The Danish Girl (2015)

The Danish Girl (2015)

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Premise: Based on true events. The marriage of Danish painters Gerda and Einar Wegener (Alica Vikander and Eddie Redmayne) goes through a transition as Einar reveals that he is transgender and begins the transition to become Lili.

What Works: Filmmaker Tom Hooper specializes in making period films such as the John Adams miniseries, The King’s Speech, and 2012’s Les Miserables. His movies are often distinguished from similar pictures; the settings of Hooper’s movies have the grit and grime of life and the characters in his projects often have the scale, fallibility, and vulnerability of real people instead of the stodgy and overly dramatic presence of characters in most of Hollywood period films. The Danish Girl is consistent with the best aspects of Hooper’s cinematic style, at least for its first half. This is most true in the relationship between Gerda and Einar Wegener, played by Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne. They have the rapport of a genuine married couple and both Vikander and Redmayne provide tremendous performances. Redmayne has the flashier part as Einar transitions to become Lili and the role requires Redmayne to play two identities in one body. The part of Lili risks becoming a pantomime of a woman but Redmayne is a very good actor and he inhabits this other person. The effectiveness of Redmayne’s performance is most apparent later in the movie when Lili has to adopt a male appearances in public; Lili is such a charming and authentic personality that her appearance in male clothes comes across strange. As good as Redmayne is, the performance of Alicia Vikander is just as impactful and in some ways more impressive. She is the point of identification for the straight audience as she tries to understand what is happening to her husband and Vikander is empathetic without behaving in the mawkish way that actors tend to do in costume dramas. The Danish Girl has an effective tension in that for Lili to achieve self-actualization, Gerda will have to lose her husband. Vikander plays this in a way that earns the audience’s sympathy. That is one of the distinguishing qualities of The Danish Girl; it is a complex story of the way identity is both created and discovered and how relationships like marriage shape and are shaped by those forces.

What Doesn’t: The Danish Girl struggles to keep up the momentum of its narrative. The film is primarily about Einar’s transition to becoming Lili and the changing relationship between Einar/Lili and Gerda and The Danish Girl is at its best when it is focused on the couple. But the tension in their relationship is resolved about halfway through the picture and The Danish Girl sags in its second half. Stories are about conflicts and Lili goes through a lot of turmoil in her transition, not least of which from mental health professionals who want her incarcerated, but much of this is anecdotal. The latter half of the film isn’t developing a sustained conflict nor is it doing much with its characters. There are some interesting ideas and subplots in The Danish Girl that are dropped. Gerda attempts to break into the art world but she’s only able to do that after painting her husband as a woman and early on the film does some interesting things in relating power with gender and the ability to see and be seen in an artist’s gaze. But a lot of the gender politics fall by the wayside as the movie goes on. There are also some interesting subplots involving romantic affairs as both Lili and Gerda are tempted by other people but these romances don’t lead anywhere. The Danish Girl also loses its nerve with regard to sexuality; the film begins with some gritty sexual imagery but in the end it lapses into the politeness and aesthetic sterility that is characteristic of period dramas.

Bottom Line: The Danish Girl has some very good performances especially by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. But the film loses its way in the second half and it misses what is most interesting about this story.

Episode: #577 (January 10, 2016)