The Danish Girl is like a dish that is beautifully garnished but leaves a bitter aftertaste. It does, of course, look stunning with the art direction team having painted a beautiful picture of 1920’s Copenhagen with elegant and loving strokes, but its claim as a ‘biopic drama’ might be a bit misleading. The film which focuses on the real life story of Lili Elbe, one of the first transgender recipients of sex reassignment surgery, is neither biographically accurate nor does it faithfully represent the LGBT condition. Thus, while the plot may be sensational, Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne handle the subject with the coyness and modesty of a law-abiding Victorian lady, which contradicts the revolutionary characteristics of her transformation.
The story can be briefly summed up as follows: Popular landscape painter, Einar Wegener, who despite having battled a gender identity crisis all his life, has still nevertheless enjoyed six years of marital bliss and professional success with Gerda, his wife and fellow portrait artist. However, when Gerda’s model fails to turn up, Einar is offered the chance to pose as a woman, complete with stockings, frills and heels – a move that triggers his alter-ego Lili personality to awaken. Lili emerges and takes over, when Einar attending a ball with his wife dressed as a woman under the guise of a foreign cousin, ends up making out with a man and is interrupted by a nasty nosebleed. The rest of the film deals with Einar’s futile journey from clinic to clinic and Gerda’s coming to terms with the new fame that her androgynous Lili portraits. She deals with the ‘death’ of her husband, as a person she once knew but can no longer recognize.
When it comes to the performances, Eddie isn’t a bad actor. Far from it. But the very casting of a cisgender actor instead of a transgender representative is indicative of the characteristic lack of diversity in Hollywood. This is especially when said actor reminds you at times of David Bowie’s androgyny and executes the role with extreme caution and politeness, as though he is afraid of being reprimanded by the audience any second. In fact the film fails, because it fails to take risks, for fear of offending the hetero-patriarchal majority, and thereby lacking any clear statement.
This isn’t Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech, bravely dealing with the insecurities of a stuttering monarch nor the one behind the lavish and extravagant Les Miserables that recreated the French Revolution for the modern audience. No, The Danish Girl might claim to be art, but ultimately it sinks back into its own mawkish self-indulgence.
Gerda does a somewhat better job, but her lesbian aspect, critical to the original history is ignored completely while Hans’ role seems too contrived and convenient. Pacing is irregular and plot development slow, the camera wandering aimlessly through postcard pretty towns and landscapes. But where the film fails thematically, Hooper attempts to make up for it aesthetically and the movie’s visual portrayals of another place and time, feels authentic and even has a poetic grace to it. Then again, the initial excess of female nudity seems irrelevant.
To sum up, The Danish Girl is in a way similar to the latest Coldplay video, “Hymn For the Weekend” that has received flak for shamelessly ‘exoticising’ India. Tom Hooper’s latest presents an outsider’s perspective of the LGBT community, without empathy and for the consumption of an audience that subscribes to a hetero normative patriarchal code. This is the sort of film that gets screened at all the major film festivals, wins awards for its art direction, gets banned in the Middle East and ultimately misunderstands its own politics and fails to make any significant social difference.
Previously published on Eye Art Collective, edited by Rohini Srinivasan