David Eberhoff’s celebrated 2000 novel The Danish Girl has belatedly been made into a motion picture and the result is both right of the moment and too-late. Eberhoff created a fictional narrative for the true life story of Einar/Lili Elbe, the first transgender male to undergo a sex change operation. Elbe’s wife Gerda was initially amused and inspired by her husband’s gradual metamorphosis, but struggled with the realization that she began to lose the man she married.
Eddie Redmayne taps into the tender vulnerability of both Einar and Lily, making us understand the internal struggle of feeling trapped in the wrong body. He vanished into the part of Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything and does the same thing here. If he continues to pursue roles this difficult and engrossing (and can make us forget his villainous turn in Jupiter Ascending), Redmayne could very well become one of the most important actors of his generation.
Alicia Vikander manages to make Gerda as complex a figure as her husband, winningly evoking the pain and joy of seeing the man she loves both transform and fade from her. Einar’s initial dalliance with putting on his wife’s dresses escalate from his being her model, to role playing and a profound realization that he has always longed to be a woman.
Only the final scroll hints at a remotely political message, as director Tom Hooper has shaped a sensitive, beautiful film about a man who struggled to feel and become who he is inside. Yet, while Hooper’s film is a well-crafted, pristine production, he never seems like the right filmmaker for this. The cosmetic beauty and surface level complexities come across but a far more probing approach would have been truly illuminating and devastating. As is, the wrap-up scenes feel both obvious and inevitable. The closing shot, reminiscent of a key image from American Beauty, is lovely but hardly novel.
Certain moments could have come across as campy and Hooper deserves credit for maintaining the integrity and seriousness of the material. Yet, I can’t help but wonder how amazing this could have been had David Cronenberg or Todd Haynes, directors who have tackled similar themes, had made this.
Hooper’s intentions were clearly good and Redmayne’s risk taking work is yet another stunning example of his capabilities as an actor. Alexandre Desplat provides yet another gorgeous score, matching the richness of the imagery with a lovely composition. For all the strong qualities, it seems like something’s missing.
While a good film, The Danish Girl doesn’t transcend the subject matter, whereas far less opulent, low-budget works have covered the material more fearlessly. The only moment that courts camp is when Redmayne is shown caressing women’s clothing, in a similar manner to Johnny Depp in Ed Wood, but the moment is fleeting. While the subject matter is never mocked or portrayed in a condescending manner, the film feels hollow.
While the filmmakers deserve credit for going where few mainstream costume dramas have, the end result should have been more Neil Jordan, less Merchant Ivory. Hooper could have made something self-important and ridiculous, like the justifiably mocked Myra Breckinridge, but he also made a movie far more pretty than provocative. It’s also very quaint, opening in theaters after the coming-out of Kaitlyn Jenner. While this is a valuable historical reenactment, the conversation on the topic of late is much more impactful than what this has to offer.