In Denmark of the 1920s and 1930s, after being asked to model for his painter wife in women’s stockings and shoes, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) discovers something that was almost missing from his life. Creating the alter ego Lili, Einar begins to dress and live more and more as a woman, but struggles with the emotional and physical implications of realising he is no longer comfortable as a man until he finds a doctor who will carry out groundbreaking and dangerous surgery.
The Danish Girl is based on the life of transgender pioneer Einar who went on to live as her authentic self Lili, and is an incredibly important story. The only trouble is that this incredibly sensitive topic is not handled as carefully as it could have been, with Einar/Lili coming off more as mentally ill than someone who knows that they were not meant to live in the body they have.
Eddie Redmayne is on fantastic form as Einar/Lili, bringing curiosity and strength to the role. Redmayne is wonderfully backed up by Alicia Vikander who makes Einar’s wife Greta curious, challenging and accepting of this unheard of struggle her husband is going through. Both work well on screen together and treat the story with the seriousness that it deserves, but struggle to break through the lack lustre script and odd musical cues. The rest of the cast includes Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts and Emerald Fennell.
Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay is based on David Ebershoff’s novel about Einar’s struggle as the first person to receive any kind of gender reassignment surgery. The film gives us a rounded feel for the pretty and gentle Einar before he realises his life is not what it should be, but his crisis with gender and decision to start living as Lili comes off as mental illness, with Lili being almost unable to articulate and explain herself and her crisis. Of course the film touches on the idea that doctors told Einar his feeling that he was not a man, but a woman and their reaction was to diagnose mental illness, but for all his protestations that there is nothing wrong with him, Einar goes through with painful and unnecessary treatments anyway. Perhaps the trouble stems from the fact that Einar/Lili’s medical records were destroyed in World War II – so we don’t know if he was actually intersex, as has been rumoured – or if the well intentioned choice to make the film as accessible as possible has flattened the impact and this film that should be a discussion about what it means to be transgender, and ends up an examination of a trans woman whose wife is much more interesting than she is.
Director Tom Hooper handles the story with his customary feel for the melodramatic, which strips some of the humanity and emotion from the incredible life of Einar and his accepting, patient and supportive wife. The film keeps an emotional distance from its subject, at turns painting Einar/Lili as confident and strong, then weak and emotional but never giving the audience the feeling that we know her. At the same time, the film completely skims over the emotion felt by Einar’s wife – other than one scene – at the transition she is going through at the same time. The final half hour, which focuses on Lili’s attempt to finally physically transition to female, suffers from a lack of detail and explanation, just as the rest of the film lacked emotional detail.
In all, The Danish Girl is a film which, at its heart, has a truly important, moving and engaging story, but this is surrounded by vapid scenes – such as Lili figuring out how she should move her hands to adequately ‘pass’ – that give no insight into the characters’ emotions, responses and understanding of being what we know now to be transgender. There is no doubt that Redmayne and Vikander’s performances are strong, but the film somehow makes transgender people invisible, even as it tells the story of the first person to transition.