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Film Review – The Danish Girl

4 min read

One of the most anticipated films of 2015 was The Danish Girl. With a limited release at the end of the year (just in time to qualify for industry award nominations), the Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The King’s Speech) directed film was at the top of many people’s lists, including mine. With Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne in the lead, ridiculously talented Alicia Vilkander (Ex Machina) co-starring, the period setting and the provocative subject matter, it had all the right ingredients to be something really special. So what went so wrong?

The Danish Girl is based (loosely) on the life of Danish painter Einar Wegener, who is generally accepted as the first person to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. The film starts out with Einar as a successful painter living in Copenhagen with his wife, Gerda (Vilkander), a painter herself. Filling in for one of her models one day, Einar poses in heels and stockings and realizes he sort of enjoys it. After some experimentation, a fully-formed, feminine alter-ego “Lili” is born and even makes public appearances introduced as Einar’s cousin. Einar eventually transforms completely into Lili and undergoes several experimental surgeries to complete her sex reassignment.

The Danish Girl insert

Set in the 1920’s and 30’s, the production design is wonderful. I especially loved The Wegener’s Copenhagen apartment, which, despite its raw simplicity, is still sumptuous down to the minutest detail. When you add in the amazing period costumes, The Danish Girl has the lush wrappings of a gorgeous period-piece, only to find that underneath the wrappings is the characterization of a cheesy, over-done, cable television movie-of-the week.

The primary problem is, unfortunately, with Einar/Lili who is the central character to the story. Hooper and Redmayne’s vision for her, though perhaps reasonably well executed, is so hopelessly flawed that it ruins the film. The two, who worked together previously in Les Miserables, have unintentionally conceived of Einar/Lili as the most blatantly contrived, overly-romanticized person who by the end of the film seems barely even like a human being at all, but more like a grotesque living caricature that even in a fictional film seems ridiculous. Redmayne’s breathy delivery of nearly every line uttered by both Einar and Lili is annoying at first, but by the end of the film just plain comical. Every bit of physicality, from each facial expression to each body movement is carefully choreographed…and it shows. Contrast that with Vilkander’s authentic and natural performance as Gerda, and it’s even more painfully evident. I’m not saying Redmayne’s acting was bad, it was actually quite good, but it was the over-arching design of the characters Einar and Lili that is so bad, it doesn’t matter how good the acting is. Throw in the fact that film really doesn’t dig much deeper into Einar’s desire to be a woman other than to wear pretty clothes and act coquettish and girly, and it’s just all so superficial. I will give credit for one thing, though: after Einar transforms into Lili, she faces obvious social pressures to resume living in line with social norms, as a man. She does that, however she doesn’t actually abandon the Lili character and resume life as Einar. Instead, she maintains her self-identity as Lili, who begins dressing as the male Einar. This subtlety was brilliant and I give Redmayne credit for pulling it off, few actors probably could.

Besides the characterization problems, there are some scenes that are so blatant and gratuitous that I actually burst out laughing (probably to the annoyance of the people sitting around me). In one scene, Einar runs away to a peep show and starts imitating every move of the beautiful naked woman in the booth.  As she reaches down towards her “lower” regions, so does Einar, but upon feeling his own male genitalia, he recoils in horror. It’s so contrived, I had to laugh. Another scene where Lili, dressing as Einar, gets beaten up in the park because she looks too androgynous is heavy-handed and completely unnecessary. To me, it came off as a blatantly manipulative attempt to garner sympathy for the character, but perhaps by this time I was so over it I had not sympathy left to give.

Flush with talent, The Danish Girl should have been a fantastic film. Instead, it is way over-worked and a good example of how sometimes less is more. The real tragedy though is Alicia Vilkander, who gives a remarkable performance and totally deserves her Oscar nomination (though oddly it is for a supporting role, but she clearly has a leading role in this film), since a great performance in a bad movie will never garner the same accolades as a great performance in a good one.