The Danish Girl [Film Review]

Right from the opening scenes, “The Danish Girl” delivers the awards-contender goods. The cinematography brings out the colors and mood of the Danish landscape that Lili Elbe painted. There a thousand shades of blue: cornflower, royal, blue-grey, robin’s egg, and indigo. Windswept grasses and twisted, slender trees frame inlets, and the sun comes down through heavy clouds hinting at the gravity of the film’s topic. As good as the film is – the acting is right on, the cinematography beautiful, the script well done – it is frustrating because it could have been better.

“The Danish Girl” examines the life of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), one of the first recipients of sex confirmation surgery. Elbe was born as Einar Wegener, a male, who became a celebrated Danish landscape painter. Einar, together with his wife, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), inhabit the first part of the film.

Very obviously in love, the couple is shown stealing glances at art parties, sharing looks of understanding and trust. It is only when Einar stands in for one of Gerda’s models, holding a dress and wearing stockings and women’s shoes, does the audience get a glimpse that there is something unspoken in the marriage.

From this point on, the story belongs to Lili and Gerda. Their love for one another is tested as each comes to term with a new role in the relationship. The chemistry between Redmayne and Vikander is substantial, and it is refreshing chemistry to see on screen. It’s not the chemistry of physical attraction, but that of friendship, trust, and familiarity. This is not a relationship that screams passion, but one that ensures they will be with each other until the end.

The Danish Girl

Lili and Gerda’s journey takes them from Copenhagen to Paris, and finally to Dresden. The days in Paris are filled with art deco parties and painting. It’s a very pretty film and does boast a serious subject, but for audience members familiar with themes of gender identity and stories of transition, it will seem to be a very safe film. It starts many conversations but has little to add. There is a montage of learning to walk in heels, picking out new women’s clothes, and putting on makeup, almost like that you would see in any film about a man dressing as a woman. This story is so much more.

In one scene early on, Gerda has a brilliant little speech about how women are constantly under a male gaze. She finishes, “For a man to submit to a woman’s gaze, it’s unsettling.” Later, Lili finds herself the subject of the male gaze, for the first time as a woman, and it is quite unnerving for her. She tries to hide, but is followed by a man (Henrik, played by Ben Whishaw), who kisses her “without permission.” Lili is very shaken up, yet the scene is framed as unwitting adultery rather than harassment.

The film gives us two versions of femininity in Gerda and Lili. Gerda is an artistic force, marching confidently through the Copenhagen streets with her canvases and commanding her sitters and models with certainty. You don’t doubt for a second she was the one who made the first move in her and Einar’s relationship as they recount the story at a party.

Conversely, Lili is a delicate and fragile woman. Her femininity is studied and markedly graceful, waifish, and wispy. She is a traditional woman who wants to marry and have children, and she has lost interest in painting (or having any type of career it seems).

We know from her story that Lili must have had tremendous strength to make the transition and undergo a risky and experimental surgery, but we rarely get to see it. Redmayne plays her as a woman so fragile, it seems as if someone breaths too hard she may fall over and shatter. Often caught in her daydreams, she is startled and gasps frequently. Redmayne will no doubt get praise for his performance, and he does deserve the praise. But there are so many close-ups of Lili lost in her own world that they begin to lose meaning. It’s as if the director is banking on Redmayne’s performance to garner accolades, but he doesn’t need to. It only serves as a distraction.

The Danish Girl

Vikander’s performance, on the other hand, is both wonderful and subtle. Her Gerda is confident without being aggressive or overbearing, and she does a remarkable job riding Gerda’s ups and downs. She is disappointed without being grief-stricken, resilient without being tough.

There is a fantastic scene where Lili gets a job in a department store. She shares her knowledge of Paris, and Parisian women’s fashion, with a shopper, showing her how to walk through the perfume just so. She giggles with the other shop girls, and as she walks out of the store with them, we know she’s really experiencing life as Lili. It is a rare moment where we get to see her as the woman she is: she is not trying to look feminine, not trying to separate herself from Einar. This scene speaks volumes more of who Lili Elbe was, and it would have been wonderful to get to know this Lili.

Ultimately, the film seems a little too self-conscious. The filmmakers know that their film’s story is important, so they don’t bother to explore too deeply or develop it fully. The film is beautiful, the cast is great, the story has a great hook, but they left tough questions for another film. This does not make it a bad or unenjoyable movie, but it is not as memorable as it could have been.

“The Danish Girl” is playing nationwide.

Images provided by Focus Features

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