Note: This review was originally published back in September 2015 as part of our coverage for the Toronto International Film Festival 2015.
If the big name offerings at TIFF this year are any indication, trans people and trans rights are having a strange moment in the Hollywood spotlight. Or, more accurately, on the edges of that spotlight. We have yet to reach a point where trans actors are routinely cast as trans characters in major motion pictures (in addition to Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Lili Elbe here, Elle Fanning plays a transgender boy in the forthcoming About Ray), nor can the real-life trans women of color who played such a significant part in the Stonewall riots hope to be acknowledged by the Stonewall film much at all. But apparently trans stories have made one dubious step forward: They’re now mainstream enough to be safe Oscar fodder.
Based on the novel of the same name – which seems, in turn, based on a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of her real life story –The Danish Girl follows painter and trans rights pioneer Lili Elbe from her first moments of realization to her death as the result of surgical complications. When we first meet her, she is still Einar Wegener, the celebrated painter who lives with his portrait artist and illustrator wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) in Copenhagen.
The couple are young, beautiful, and completely in love, but changes between the two and within Einar begin to develop when Gerda asks him to help her with a portrait by posing in pantyhose and women’s shoes. Einar is visibly moved by the experience. (Side note: This scene plays out with only slightly more sophistication than Ed Wood’s 1953 transvestite B-movie/proto-after school special Glen or Glenda, but it is at least relatively faithful to Elbe’s actual experience.) Then Gerda suggests that Einar dress up as and act like a woman at a party with their art world friends.
Einar’s experience at the party awakens some long-repressed memories and feelings in the painter, leading to the realization that Lili is far more than a trivial affectation. Einar begins to spend more and more time living as Lili. This, in turn, leads to Gerda and Lili moving to Paris, both to further Gerda’s art career and thwart the doctor who wishes to treat Lili for perversion. Eventually, Lili meets a doctor who is willing to perform a series of surgeries, the first public male-to-female transition operations, which forces the pair to confront what this will mean for Lili and Gerda as individuals, and what it will mean for their relationship.
Director Tom Hooper firmly established himself as a capable director who helms Important Films with Important Subject Matter with 2010’s Oscar-winning The King’s Speech and he’s clearly gunning for a repeat performance with The Danish Girl. There’s very little doubt he’ll accomplish exactly that. He’ll nab nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Redmayne, reigning Best Actor thanks to his turn in last year’s hot festival circuit prospect, The Theory of Everything, will get a shot at retaining his title, and he’ll deserve it for the most part.
Some of the feminine touches Redmayne brings to Lili’s mannerism seem a bit too affected, but his performance is otherwise understated and genuine. Vikander will also get an acting nomination, and rightfully so, given that her fragile but determined performance as a woman who must love the most important person in her life enough to let them go is the film’s best attribute. Chances are that The Danish Girl will win at least some of these awards, and then everyone involved in the making and celebration of it will pat themselves on the back for being so brave and forward-thinking.
Which is unfortunate because The Danish Girl isn’t brave. It’s the blue chip stock of the film world, a safe investment that has predictable returns, and cheats both its subject matter and artistry of any truly meaningful gains in the process. It’s serviceably moving as far as serious dramas go, and features very good to excellent performances and painting-like cinematography, but doesn’t challenge its audience at all.
There are hints at so many more intriguing ideas within The Danish Girl, from the disparity in the way that Einar and Gerda’s art is treated, to the disturbing treatment that trans people face at the hand of ostensibly well-meaning doctors, but they’re barely touched in favor of a simpler and more straightforward narrative. And any meaningful reflection that could have come from Elbe’s untimely death is sacrificed in favor of a pandering ending wrapped in a truly lazy metaphor.
While The Danish Girl still represents, arguably, a step forward in terms of trans visibility and awareness, it’s ultimately a disappointing one. Trans people deserve better treament than this. And we all deserve better art.