The Danish Girl

January 22, 2016
Eddie Redmayne in 'The Danish Girl' (2015)
Eddie Redmayne in 'The Danish Girl' (2015)

When Gore Vidal’s novel, Myra Breckinridge, was made into a truly lamentable movie in 1970, transgender issues were hardly front page news. The idea that someone could feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body, or vice versa, was the stuff of ribald comedy.

The wheel has turned so completely that transgenderism now occupies the frontline of Political Correctness. The media can’t get enough of transgendered celebrity, Caitlyn Jenner, while The Guardian could publish an anthology of articles it has devoted to the subject. The coverage ranges from pleas for the humane acceptance of transgendered individuals, to calls to eliminate male and female pronouns from the English language.

Tom Hooper must be a Guardian reader, as his treatment of transgender themes in The Danish Girl is so sensitive that even the most radical activist would find it hard to take offence. Or so it seemed, until the director began to cop flak for not casting a transgendered actor in the lead role.

This is a bit hard on Eddie Redmayne, who puts everything into the part of Einar/Lili. To say that only a transgendered person should play such a role is like saying only artists should make judgements about art.

The film is set in Copenhagen during the 1920s. Einar Wegener is a successful landscape painter, and his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), a struggling portraitist. The Wegeners’ Copenhagen apartment seems to have been modelled on the subdued, grey interiors of Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) Denmark’s most celebrated modern artist.

In trying to finish a commission from Ulla (Amber Heard), a dancer friend, Gerda gets her husband to put on a set of stockings and strike a pose. The touch of silk unlocks a door in Einar’s mind and he finds himself compelled to frock up whenever he is alone. When Gerda dresses him in drag for the artists’ ball it is a breakthrough moment. A writer named Henrik (Ben Whishaw) tries to pick him up, and Einar enjoys the attention.

Einar’s cross-dressing becomes an obsession, but he is not merely a transvestite – he is undergoing a complete transformation. This is difficult for Gerda but she exploits her spouse’s predilections by getting him to pose for a series of feminine nudes that sets her career on a new path. As her reputation soars the couple move to the more permissive environment of Paris, where they seek out Einar’s childhood friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), an unusually sympathetic art dealer.

Einar is now Lili, the male side of his personality having been subsumed by the female. (S)he has endured many bad experiences with psychologists, but when she meets Dr. Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), a pioneer of sex change surgery, she is eager to undertake the operations that will make her a bona fide female.

Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe was a real person, who wrote a memoir called Man Into Woman, but this movie is based on a fictionalised version of the story by David Ebershoff. Hooper has given it the full romantic treatment, portraying Einar and Gerda as a devoted, loving couple until Lili suddenly appears.

Hooper cut his teeth as a director of TV serials and never seems to have gotten over the experience. He may have won the Oscar for Best Director for The King’s Speech (2010), but it was a sentimental, utterly conventional film. The Danish Girl is more engaging but still feels like a movie made from an old Hollywood textbook. Many of the characters, including stalwart Hans, are hardly more than cardboard cut-outs.

Hooper uses musical cues in the most obvious manner, and tolerates some pedestrian dialogue. The big lines and crucial moments are always spotlit so there is no chance of missing anything vital.

Although Redmayne is the heart of this film the script does him no favours. He works hard to portray Einert’s transformation in a way that exudes awkwardness and insecurity, without underplaying the compulsion that drives him onward. If at times he seems too simpering and effeminate, it’s likely that many transgendered people pass through such a phase when trying to adjust to a new identity.

It may be a thrill to be female at last but the transition is not instinctive. Lili must learn how to wear clothes and apply make-up. She must figure out how to act in social situations, and how to mingle with other girls. Hooper makes the whole process seem a little too easy. His sense of drama can’t seem to free itself from the need to make a well-mannered family entertainment. Plenty of tears are shed, but the real pain is missing.

The Danish Girl
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by Lucinda Coxon, after a novel by David Ebershoff
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch
UK/Belgium/USA, rated M, 120 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23rd January, 2016.