The Danish Girl
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw
The indifference kicks in around the 10-minute mark. Soon afterwards there is boredom, followed quickly by more indifference. The Danish Girl is the cinematic equivalent of a half-hearted shrug, the movie version of a really long sigh.
It is inspired, loosely, by the true story of Einar Wegener (played to Oscar success by Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda, and based on an even looser book by author David Ebershoff. Both are painters in 1920’s Copenhagen, living a life full of parties and high society exhibitions. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Einar tries on a pair of stockings, and the rest, as they say, is history. No, it really is: Einar Wegener, noted landscape artist, was a pioneer transgender woman and one of the first recipients of the sex reassignment surgery. And like that other recent Oscar-winning biopic about the life of Alan Turing (The Imitation Game), The Danish Girl too, manages to make an extraordinary true story a by-the-numbers slog.
It begins harmlessly. Einar, like Johnny Depp in Ed Wood tries out his wife’s clothes, and the next thing you know, he’s secretly wearing her nightdress underneath his shirt. For a while both husband and wife enjoy the ‘game’ but soon, Lili is born. She gets her own training montage of sorts. But unlike Rocky and his conquering of the Philly steps, all Redmayne gets to do is ‘comically’ ape women’s mannerisms in broad daylight, while standing next to them, clear as day.
At first Gerda, played with great dignity by Alicia Vikander (Oscar nominated for this role), takes it in her stride, encouraging Einar to continue the charade. Then, it all becomes too real too suddenly. As the lines between Einar and Lili begin to blur, so does any sense of logic and nuance in the film.
There is a scene that is surely meant to be powerful. It is one of the major turning points in the story; the moment Einar truly acknowledges the existence of Lili. But it comes across as an even creepier version of that Buffalo Bill dance sequence from The Silence of the Lambs.
To describe Lili Elbe as a complex character is like calling Infinite Jest a dense book. She is a bisexual, maybe gay, possibly intersex (formerly hermaphrodite) person who is definitely a cross-dresser but also a transgender with multiple personalities. I give up. Eddie Redmayne is really good at his job, understood.
But once again, he is undone by scattershot direction. He can’t, unlike other more experienced actors, function as well without a director’s vision guiding him away from bad choices. He is at times unsettlingly good, but never consistently so.
The blame lies squarely with director Tom Hooper, who pretty much falls into the only pit he should’ve avoided at all cost: He makes Lili’s predicament seem like a mental illness, which is unacceptable in an age where we have Transparent and Orange is the New Black pushing boundaries on TV and Sean Baker’s Tangerine single handedly announcing an entirely new genre. His version of Lili is a selfish adulterer and not the brave, blossoming woman she should have been.
In the recent annual Oscars roundtable discussion organised by The Hollywood Reporter, Hooper said something that suggests he would be more suited to a life as a Hollywood hack than an Oscar-winning director. In the company of such vocal auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, David O Russell and Ridley Scott he said that he doesn’t make films for himself, he only makes them for audiences. The others’ expressions were priceless.
Watch the roundtable discussion
I can count on three fingers the number of times I’ve strongly wanted to walk out of a movie and Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is in the top two, which is unfortunate because the same director’s The Damned United is one of my favourite movies ever.
The Danish Girl, sadly, is more like the former. It is the worst kind of Oscar bait, just as morally cynical like any other mindless sequel hungry for your money. It exists not to tell a worthwhile story but to win awards. And its misguided attempts reek of desperation. But it’s too late for all that. Recognition has been thrown its way already.
How can a film which boasts lines like “my wife, my life,” be respected? How can a film about such a progressive person be so crushingly outdated? And it is as clunkily edited as it is written, a simple back and forth conversation has more cuts than a Jason Bourne fistfight.
In the end The Danish Girl leaves you wondering what it may have been, because what it turned out to be is certainly not something that can be recommended. The only bright spark in this drab film is the ever-dependable work by composer Alexandre Desplat and a solid supporting performance by the always excellent Matthias Schoenaerts.
Perhaps some day, a filmmaker with a real passion for the subject can come along and tell this tale the way it’s meant to be told. Till then, don’t watch The Danish Girl. Watch your phone run out of battery instead.
Watch the trailer
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The author tweets @NaaharRohan