It’s official: Eddie Redmayne was put on this earth to get people who don’t normally cry during movies to cry.
Excuse me, I’ve got something in my eye…
This is my review of The Danish Girl!
The Danish Girl tells the true story of Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Lili was born as painter Einar Wegener who confronts repressed feelings and seeks to become a woman. Along for the tumultuous journey is Gerda Wegener, the progressive, strong-willed wife who must come to terms with her spouse’s transition from male to female.
Guys and gals, this review was a labor of love. Transgenderism is a sensitive topic that strikes a nerve in people. I knew that in writing this review, I had to be charitable to LGBT people while remaining loyal to the Church’s stance on sexuality.
For the record, I will never go against the Church’s teaching that God creates us as male and female; Genesis 1:27 states, “God created man in His image; in the divine image He created him; male and female He created them.”
I will also never cast aside the human dignity of our transgender brothers and sisters. Whether they be gay or straight, every single person is a child of God.
With all that said, let’s take a look at The Danish Girl!
Eddie Redmayne broke my heart in The Theory of Everything and in this movie, his performance had me crying like a baby once again. Empathetic, vulnerable and even childlike at times, Redmayne brilliantly captures the torment of having to wrestle with gender identity. Any time he has to look at his body in the mirror and mentally envision Lili, his conflict and inner pain are well conveyed. There is a scene where Lili is beaten up by two homophobic men and, as gut-wrenching as it is, I admire how this one scene unflinchingly depicts the grim reality of anti-gay prejudice. Like Alan Turing in Imitation Game, Lili is a fleshed-out character, never treated as an agenda pawn. Much care was taken to be compassionate to Lili’s plight.
Alicia Vikander’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar win was well deserved. Through her portrayal, we come to know Gerda Wegener as Lili’s advocate, guardian angel and kindred spirit. Her heartbreaking evolution from playing along with her spouse’s “game” to fully realizing that the person she married is becoming someone else is sold by Vikander’s grounded and spirited performance.
Similarly to The Theory of Everything, the Wegeners’ marriage is engaging to watch. I like how before becoming Lili, Einar starts out as timid and reserved, while Gerda is the adventurous free spirit. Redmayne and Vikander have a natural chemistry and the love between their characters is convincing.
The set design and the costumes are immaculate. The color palate resembles that of a painting, which wonderfully reflects the main characters’ shared passion for art. The film successfully captures the look and feel of 1920’s Denmark.
Where this movie really shines is helping us understand the depth of Lili’s suffering and desire to be a woman while at the same time being considerate of Gerda’s own turmoil with losing her husband. Neither character is vilified and both have moments of selfishness, hence treating the complexity of the subject matter with tact.
Focus is a major issue in this movie. The film attempts to make both Lili and Gerda the main characters, but more attention is given to Gerda than to Lili. By the second act of the film, Lili feels like a glorified supporting character. The movie has a generally steady pace up until the third act, where it starts to meander and toy around with filler and the ending feels a tad rushed.
The musical score is composed by Alexandre Desplat, the same man behind the remarkable Imitation Game soundtrack. Unfortunately the musical score here is not as inspired. It sounds nice and it is as smooth as a brush on a canvas, but it pales in comparison to the Imitation Game music. Sorry, Mr. Desplat, but it looks like you can’t always catch lighting in a bottle twice.
So before the gender reassignment surgery, the movie treats Lili as an apparition, as a separate character whom Einar seeks to become. I am sad to say that this strategy backfires. Lines of dialogue such as, “I think Lili’s thoughts. I dream her dreams,” and “There was a moment where I wasn’t me. There was a moment that I was just Lili…” made me cringe. Because Lili and Einar are handled as two characters embodied by one person, there are quite a few times where the movie comes dangerously close to confusing transgenderism with split personality disorder.
It is clear that director Tom Hooper could have used the help of a transgender specialist. Throughout the film, it appears that Mr. Hooper realized how complicated transgenderism is and became intimidated by his own project. As a result, the focus on Gerda feels like a security blanket to cover up the film’s inability to delve into the psychology of Lili and it keeps the film from being the character study it could have been.
I have come to the conclusion that The Danish Girl is an admirable misfire. On one hand, the hearts of everyone involved are in the right place, the technical work is praiseworthy and the committed performances of both Redmayne and Vikander express the triumph and tragedy of their love story. On the other hand, the restraint and timidity of the filmmakers hold back the story from being able to get inside Lili Elbe’s head, leaving more to be desired. It is certainly not a bad film, but rather a misstep with good intentions.
Saint Raphael the Archangel, pray for us.