Tom Hooper’s film about Danish painters Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe has received positive, but mostly lukewarm reviews. I can understand why. Hooper has given The Danish Girl a high-toned, somewhat restrained quality that seems more suited to a Merchant Ivory costume drama than to a film about the first person in Europe to undergo gender reassignment surgery. But I liked it a lot more than Hooper’s earlier film The King’s Speech, which won Best Picture.
The main reason is Alicia Vikander, a brown-eyed, olive-skinned Swedish actress who might just be the hottest Scandinavian in film since Anna Karina. Is there a Jean-Luc Godard out there who can make her his muse? She deserves to be in a genuinely great movie, but no amount of clumsy, British restraint can take away the purely cinematic quality that Vikander brings to The Danish Girl. It’s impossible to look at anything else when she’s on camera.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Eddie Redmayne. He was miscast as Marius Pontmercy in the 2012 production of Les Miserables, also directed by Tom Hooper, and as Matt Damon’s son in Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd. In the Danish girl, he works. While he certainly doesn’t have the forceful, masculine appearance you need to play an 1830s French revolutionary or a modern day American CIA frat-bro, he’s not exactly what you would call effeminate or sexually ambiguous. I didn’t really believe him as a woman. To be honest, I kept thinking of Monty Python characters in drag, but I had no trouble believing him as a man uncomfortable in his own body. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, for example, his character Lili Elbe, who was born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, kisses a man for the first time as an adult, and immediately gets a bad nose bleed. Elbe’s spirit almost seems to be rebelling against her flesh.
I don’t really know how to write about issues of sexual identity. I’m not transgender. I don’t know any transgender people, and I haven’t read any books about sexual reassignment. Off hand, the only transgender people I can think of are Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning, who’s of interest mainly because of her persecution by the Obama administration for exposing American war crimes in Iraq. I suspect many film critics are in the same boat, but I don’t think you have to be an expert in gender reassignment surgery or transgender issues to appreciate The Danish Girl, for it works on two other levels.
While the main focus of The Danish Girl is on what was probably the very first example of gender reassignment surgery in Europe, the film is also about two artists, one who finds her long sought after subject, the other who loses hers, and the dissolution of their marriage. The Danish Girl opens with Einar and Gerda Wegener, a happily married couple who appear to be in their mid-20s – they were actually in their 40s when Einar came out as a woman – living in Copenhagen, Denmark in the 1920s. Einar is a successful landscape painter. Gerda is a failed portrait artist, but they have a bond that makes them lucky. For most creative artists, pursuing your art means giving up on the idea of a normal heterosexual marriage. Unless you have enough inherited money to hire servants and to avoid a regular job, a man usually has to spend years in the kind of poverty that makes him unattractive to most women. Women, as Virginia Woolf pointed out in her classic essay A Room With a View, most women don’t have the time to write and to raise children. You need to choose one.
Not to be flippant or sexist, but for a straight man, the idea of being only a moderately successful landscape painter with a wife who looks like Alicia Vikander, let alone one who supports what he’s doing, is a little bit like hitting the lottery. For a straight woman like Gerda Wegener, the idea of putting your own creative pursuits on hold to stand by your husband is sadly familiar, but Gerda doesn’t hide her frustration. She makes one “cisgender” model uncomfortable when she talks about how, as a woman objectifying a man, she’s turning the tables on him by painting his portrait. She’s visibly angry with her husband after an art dealer refuses to sell her paintings.
After she persuades Einar to pose as a woman after another model doesn’t show for her sitting, however, and he tries on a pair of nylons, the effect is a bit like Saint Paul being struck by lightening on the road to Damascus. Almost immediately, Einar recognizes that he isn’t a man, that she was born a woman in a male body. Einar Wegener is dead. Lili Elbe is born. While Einar’s transformation into Lili has a catastrophic effect on his marriage to Gerda, it’s like a shot of adrenaline to Gerda’s career as a painter. Einar has found his true gender. Gerda has found her subject, her husband, who can no longer be her husband, a woman who can no longer live in the body of a man.
After Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as a woman, transgender people are now a familiar subject in the mainstream media. In the 1920s, however, Lili’s realization that she was a woman in a strange man’s body was as horrifying as it was exhilarating. As Gerda becomes more and more successful, Einar feels as if he’s spiraling into madness. Even for educated, creative people like the Wegeners, the idea that some women are simply born into male bodies must have felt as if it had come from outer space. Nevertheless, Einar is a hero, or, rather, a heroine, willing to undergo an experimental procedure that will almost certainly mean her death. It’s a credit to Alicia Vikander, in turn, just how well she is able to express the idea that Gerda is probably more distraught at the idea of losing a husband who can no longer be her husband than over the prospect of losing the model that has brought her fame and fortune.
The Danish Girl’s British restraint, while often criticized, is actually what makes the film work. Lili Elbe walks quietly to her fate with Gerda Wegener as her sympathetic witness. Tom Hooper never allows the fascinating story to get lost in an overwrought melodrama.