Movie Review - The Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, the first person reportedly to undergo sex reassignment surgery in order to transition from being a man to being a woman. Before Einar had the surgery, he dressed like a woman and changed his personality traits calling himself Lili. He lived in Copenhagen and the story begins in 1926 when he was married and aspiring to be a painter.

Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) co-stars as Gerda, the wife of Einar who is an aspiring painter as well. She realizes that her husband is changing into a woman and she has to deal with it. Because this time period deems transgender people and homosexuality as an illness, this movie oddly mirrors The Theory of Everything where again Redmayne's character has a physical transformation and his wife has to deal with it.

In other ways, this movie is The Theory of Everything, part 2. The difference is that the life of Stephen Hawking is perhaps a more specific and unique experience than Einar Wegener's. Yes, plenty of people have to handle people who are paralyzed or suffering from a highly, debilitating condition. However, pop culture has been hit this year with the transgender movement in a big way, so there's extremely more expectation and politics that could and should surround this.

Gerda makes an interesting statement toward the beginning. She talks about a man submitting to a woman's gaze. It's assumed that there will be some appreciation or admiration of the male form, or even some objectification of it, at least from Gerda's perspective. She makes this statement while painting a man. However, after this, she never paints another man again.

Lili says that being a woman is something she always felt, despite being born a man. Gerda starts painting Lili, so technically she's still painting a man but not really. The image of Lili is outwardly feminine, or what is stereotypically feminine, specifically for that time and the culture in Denmark. As most films that don't simply include transgender characters but are "about" what it's like to be transgender or transition from male to female, the focus is usually on the superficial like the clothing or certain affectations. This movie is no different.

One misstep is the screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel by David Ebershoff. Coxon has Gerda as the person who suggests that Einar fully cross-dress and become what will be called Lili. It may provide conflict later on, but it takes the wheel away from Lili in a story that should be driven by Lili.

Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech and Les Misérables) includes a veritable montage where we see Lili mimicking or imitating the behavior of Gerda and other women. It reinforces the idea that gender is nothing if not performance. Given Hooper's two, previous, Oscar-winning films, it's no surprise. Both The King's Speech and Les Misérables were both in various ways about a person having to put on a performance or take on a role. In the case of Les Misérables, it's not just the performance of the characters like Jean Valjean, but it's also about the musical performances of the actors involved.

When it comes to portraying the transgender experience, this can pose a bit of a contradiction. Many in the transgender community talk about transitioning in order to be his or her authentic self, but if one has to put on a performance like an actor on a perpetual stage, then how is that authentic?

At the same time, the film unfortunately skirts the issue of sexuality. There are two men who pastly or presently were potential love interests or sexual partners for Lili. Even though many transgendered people eschew the idea of linking sexuality or sexual-romantic preference to the experience of transitioning, this movie certainly opens that door but simply never dares to go through it.

Ben Whishaw (Skyfall and Cloud Atlas) plays Henrik, a handsome, young man whom Lili meets at a party. Obviously, there is some romantic interest. This would have been interesting to explore, but first it's never made clear to what Henrik is attracted because later Lili says Henrik is gay but it's not clear if Henrik could tell Lili was transgender. Lili's interests are certainly never made clear. Is her interest in men genuine or part of the performance?

Matthias Schoenaerts (Far From the Madding Crowd and Rust and Bone) plays Hans Axgil, a childhood friend of Einar whom he kissed. It's obvious that Hans is straight, but it's also never really explored as to what that kiss between Einar and Hans meant to Einar. Why include Hans at all in this story? If it's merely to show a heterosexual male as an ally to Einar's change to Lili, then it's commendable, but it seems as if that was all, which makes it a wasted opportunity.

The final shot made no sense to me either. Spoiler alert, but the film ends with Gerda losing a scarf to a gust of wind. Hans tries to grab it, but Gerda says to let it go and both then watch the scarf fly and soar through the air. Maybe I missed the significance earlier in the film, but it was a weird note to close the film.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some sexuality and full nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.


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