The Danish Girl is a sometimes bizarre, pretty and surprisingly safe film about a husband and wife living in Copenhagen in the 1920s. They're both successful painters and very much in love until the husband comes to know herself as a woman, which has a way of changing a relationship.
The film's adapted from a 2001 novel of the same name, which is itself a fictionalized retelling of a real life couple under similar circumstances. The real Einer had been assigned male at birth and then underwent five separate surgeries to correct the mistake at a time when trans issues were only beginning to be understood. The details of her transformation to Lili were housed at an Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin that was destroyed by the Nazis in the 1930s, so what we know of her actual life comes mostly from letters and diary entries assembled after her death.
Last year's Oscar winner for best actor, Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), stars as Einer/Lili. Alicia Vikander plays her wife Gerda, who you may also remember as the robot with an agenda in last year's Ex Machina. Both have received Oscar nominations for their roles. Redmayne likely won't win for a few reasons: Firstly, he won last year for playing Stephen Hawking in a role that required a similarly drastic body transformation. As Lili, he is sympathetic and sincere, but the feminine hand gestures and serious looks in the mirror seem overly practiced; it's just a little too perfect. Vikander as best supporting actress outshines her costar, although it's not a "supporting" role at all. She's the heart of the film and has more screen time than Redmayne, but never mind.
Einer's transition into Lili begins on accident and then escalates quickly. At first Gerda seems open to and even titillated by what appears to be her husband's kink for wearing women's clothing, and I wanted the film to embrace that space. Instead, Gerda oscillates unpredictably between accepting Lili for who she is and conforming to the movie trope of the doting, suffering, heterosexual wife. The real life Gerda was probably at least bisexual, as evidenced by her erotic paintings of women and other historical details, so why does the film choose instead to make her a straight woman who stoically endures what is essentially the death of her husband?
This is a sensitive story that deserves a brave and honest treatment. Forgive me for being a tad prescriptive, but I feel like director Tom Hooper missed a great opportunity here to make a period film that understands even in dark periods of history, queer and gender nonconforming people have always had allies. (For a good example of what I mean, see 2009's A Single Man.) I wish the filmmakers had dwelled in the strange nature of Gerda and Lili's sexuality as they came to understand it together. Instead, it devolves into something a lot more sentimental and easy.
Besides acting, the film is up for Oscars in production and costume design. The women's dresses are gorgeous and fun to look at, just as you would expect them to be in 1920s Europe. Lili and Gerda are at the center of the art scene in Copenhagen and Paris, surrounded by beautiful things and aesthetically minded people, but I don't quite buy it. The Danish Girl feels like a modern story, transplanted awkwardly into a world of British accents in Denmark, playing dress up. And at two hours, the story feels about 15 minutes longer than the weight of the tragedy can reasonably expect us to endure.
Still, there's a lot to admire in The Danish Girl, and despite my criticisms, it remains a powerful, good-looking film with provocative performances. This is a near miss for me.
The Danish Girl opens at the Roxy starting Fri., Feb. 5.