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Film Review: The Danish Girl

Updated on February 24, 2016

Background

In 2015, Tom Hooper released The Danish Girl, based on the 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff and loosely inspired by the life of Danish painters Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard, Sebastian Koch, Emerald Fennell, Adrian Schiller, and Henry Pettigrew, the film grossed $49.2 million at the box office. Banned in Qatar, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait, the film won the Alliance of Women Film Journalists Award for Best Breakthrough Performance, the Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role and was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.

Synopsis

In the late 1920s, Danish painter Einar Wegener lives with his painter wife, Gerda. One day, Gerda asks him to stand in for a mutual friend who was supposed to model for her latest painting but canceled at the last minute. Now, Einar begins to identify as a woman named Lili Elbe and while Gerda doesn’t quite know what to make of the changes, but she eventually stands by Lili while she undergoes the first ever sex-reassignment surgery.

Review

Though a good film, The Danish Girl seems like it spent way too much time in Development Hell. As a story about the first ever sex-reassignment surgery and the person it was performed on, it felt like much of the film had been defanged as all the time the film spent being worked on allowed it to suffer a lot of micromanaging that essentially had all the elements that could have been seen as too challenging or controversial removed. Granted, though the film does show Lili as being harassed and being seen as abnormal and in need of treatment, it doesn’t feel like the film goes far enough as those incidents are quite isolated and seem to only be in the film to serve as conflict.

Another mark against the film is its historical inaccuracy regarding the relationship between Lili and Gerda. In the film, Gerda struggles with Einar and his discovery of Lili and the two have a strained relationship at points before eventually reconciling before Lili dies from surgical complications. That’s actually notably very far from how their relationship was historically where Gerda was continuously supportive of Einar’s transition into Lili and the two of them were always close until Lili died. Historically, the evidence also points to Gerda remaining attracted to Lili after the transition rather than the alternative and the two lived as an openly lesbian couple. This is actually another way the film was defanged as was another way of creating conflict, but did so where conflict didn’t originally exist.

As a whole though, the plot is still largely pretty good. One very well-done point during the story was when Einar discovered Lili. The whole scene is presented interestingly with some good acting. At first Einar finds it inconceivable that he would wear a dress and act as a stand in for a female model and initially finds the whole experience humiliating before he sees a reflection himself and comes to believe that he’s beautiful and points to that time as when he discovered Lili and she came to the forefront. What’s really interesting is that when Gerda asks if she’s responsible because of that moment, Einar states that he’s grateful for her being the catalyst to him discovering Lili. Further, even though it’s isolated and meant to create drama, the moments when Einar goes to doctors about his feelings, the film does present the majority medical view surrounding transgender people at the time: namely that they were mentally unstable and in need of painful therapy.

Unfortunately though, it seems that Redmanyne’s performance largely leaves much to be desired with the best acted scene being when he’s acting as the stand in for the model. Every other time, he seems to overact as Lili, seemingly like he’s overcompensating and acting in a manner that he thinks a woman should act. On the other hand, it could be that Redmayne is giving a performance of a man who is trying too hard to portray a woman, but that doesn’t quite come across.

3 stars for The Danish Girl

the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinions.

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