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Film Review: The Danish Girl

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Photo by: Fox Features

A predictable, but moving film, The Danish Girl (2015) delivers in emotion and artistry, but fails to convey true understanding.

Although The Danish Girl spans many years, it feels neatly compact in its two tearful hours. It is tightly focused on the relationship of Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) and Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) as Einar transforms into Lili Elbe. At the center of this film, it is really a drama about two people in a unique relationship. It is about their romance and their love, and the ability of their relationship to change, moving away from a romantic one, but still grow deeper in love and care. However, The Danish Girl promotes itself as a representation and a voice for the transgender community. And in many ways it surely may be. Having such representation in film is imperative. But unfortunately, once seeing the film on the whole, the promotional aspects feel like they were using a single, critical circumstance as an excuse to ‘get people in the chair,’ falsely advertising the true story on the screen. Then again… typical Hollywood.

Of course, the basis for Gerda and Einar’s issues –within the realm of the film– are due to Einar’s movement into Lili, yet, it is still not a film about transgender rights, struggles, and surgery. It is certainly about the identity crisis of Lili Elbe and how she managed to accept herself, so we can call it a film about identity, self-love, and self acceptance; And thus, we can look past the lack of societal struggles presented in the film. The public awareness and voice of the LGBTQ community at the time The Danish Girl takes place was practically non-existent, so we can’t expect the landscape to look the way the suffragette movement did, for example.

But rather than popularize itself as “…Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer,” the film should have probably advertised as a varying and passionate love story with a unique dilemma [particularly for the time period]. By trying to be a voice for the transgender community, The Danish Girl has instead failed them and itself. However, it is not to say that the film is not quite impressive when regarded for what it actually is.

Once again, Tom Hooper has managed to create a world unequaled in beauty alongside his King’s Speech (2010) and Les Mis (2012) cinematographer, Danny Cohen. Together, the two have created another visually stunning masterpiece, capturing unique details of peoples’ souls and desires, scarcely seen in popular cinema. In a world of ‘surface-heroes’, Hooper and Cohen have exposed the internal realities–whether brave or full of fear–of true heroes and their struggles. And they have done so with some of the most gorgeous lighting filmmaking has ever seen. Then again, we expected no less.

Redmayne’s performance was flawless–as was also expected–after his well-deserved Oscar win for his work as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014). He does more than any other actor could have in a severely challenging role. Lili Elbe’s strength, as well as her fragility, are done great justice by Redmayne, even if the film overall, doesn’t do much for her story.

But it is Vikander who steals the show.

In an inspired performance of Gerda Wegener, Alicia Vikander finds passion in every subtle movement from breath to heartbreak to sleep. Although tears are nearly-constant on Vikander’s face during the film, (which may or may not be her doing, alone), she manages to have us look beyond her face and into ourselves. A performance that makes us curious about our own emotions, Vikander has broken new ground for the modern-day actor that raises the bar for her contemporaries.

As Redmayne and Vikander live the lives of a couple who’s world is forever-changed when one accepts themselves for who they really are, we experience a well of emotion… the true basis of the film. Gerda’s support for Einar as he becomes Lili is unique, because so rarely are we forced to see the weight a woman [so often] carries. Lili’s burden and struggles are different from Gerda’s because Gerda is losing the person she loves most and gaining someone new that she doesn’t fully know or understand, and yet, still loves. Lili is losing a person she does not love–Einar–as well as losing the romantic ties to Gerda. And although the roles sound balanced despite their differences, Gerda ends up being the one with strength and courage enough for herself and Lili.

In spite of the lack of ‘great storytelling’ and the fact that the film completely tiptoes its way through the transgender discussion, it is still decent overall. That is, save for the very end, when Hooper’s desire to stir emotion outweighs what the film really requires: a solid finale. In a nearly laughable scene, what should be a beautiful sendoff becomes a corny cliché, ending the film on a powerless note instead of the high one it much needs; and then naturally, presents the audience with words about Lili being a pioneer for the transgender community, which may well-enough be true in history, but is just not so in the realm of the film.

The Danish Girl is undeniably brilliant from many filmmaking aspects: direction, cinematography, performance. But as the film opens and closes–with images of reflections–The Danish Girl is merely a reflection of the life of Lili Elbe, not an insight into her identity. 

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