The Danish Girl, welcome to this years Oscar bait and boy does it show. When I first saw the trailer to this film in the cinema my first thoughts were: “here we go, theory of everything all over again.” When I came to watch the film, I was expecting the same shallow and distant mis-telling of an interesting and wonderful story, moved along only by the fantastic performances of the lead stars. What I got? Well…what I got wasn’t that but I’m not sure if it’s much better.
The Danish Girl is a film that is already riddled in controversy due to the lack of a trans actor playing the title role. To touch on it slightly, my concerns with the film has nothing to do with that, on the whole I thought Eddie Redmayne’s performance was rather good and he fitted really well into the role. To call this film transphobic because it didn’t cast a trans actor in the role is ridiculous and I urge people to not label it as so.
The title character is Einar Wegener, a painter who was born a man but identifies as a women. We meet the character in the midst of her success alongside her struggling wife’s (Gerda Wegener played by Alicia Vikander) career, also as a painter. One day when a sitter is late to appear in one of Gerda’s paintings, Einar sits in, donning stockings and a dress. This is the pivotal scene where we first see Einar’s realisation that she was born in the wrong body. Initially, Gerda goes along excitably with Einar’s exploration into this side of her; willingly going out to pick out dresses and teaching Einar how to appear and act as a women. It’s painted as a game the married couple share and enjoy, however things become too real for the two when Einar is approached by an admirer, played by Ben Whishaw, whilst in the Lili persona. So starts Einar’s journey to become a women, and so begins the breakdown of the Wegener marriage.
With the story aside, my concerns lie with how shallow the film’s telling of that story is. We are watching the first man to transform into a women and the complications it can bring to a marriage. The film is urging us, no, begging us to be on Einar’s side, to be gushing over the personal conflict she’s going through, and it thinks that it being a film about a trans person is enough. That we are obliged to be on their side. As much as I want to, and I really do, the film does a very poor job of getting me to do that. Now this isn’t the fault of Redmayne, his performance is really well done and you believe the conflict within the character, but is directed to be selfish and quite frankly harsh to others around her. Throughout the film, we see Einar being given tremendous amounts of support from others around her, no one (with the exception of some doctors and a couple of bystanders) rejects her choice or belief. Even her wife Gerda, who’s probably in one of the most difficult and testing situations one can find themselves, comes to fully support Einar. But time and time again, we see this support thrown back into the faces of the characters, more so than others Gerda. She endlessly tries to please Einar and do what she can for her but essentially gets burned for the efforts. However, there are points where the film becomes aware of this fact and tries amend Einar’s attitude, however it is handled so badly and rushed it just comes across as manipulative more than anything else.
But with that aside the performances are really good, but it isn’t Redmayne that should be collecting an Oscar this year, it is Vikander. Not only does she outperforms Redmayne, but she essentially carries the whole film. Every emotion, every conflict and every reaction can be seen in her performance alone. She brings great depth into the character and overall, you truly do side with her. You feel her pain and tragedy she goes through and you want to be at her side through it all.
Going on however, the film also greatly lacks ambition. Again it thinks because of it’s subject matter is enough to win the heart of the audience, but painting this tragedy as a glossy and whimsical tale shows how much the film doesn’t understand the story it’s telling. Even when we eventually get to the operation, there is no sense of struggle or hardship. The first ever gender reassignment surgery and it comes across as routine. The film makers attitude towards the topic is the same as the characters attitude towards Einar. They pussyfoot around the issue, they see it on the surface and they don’t want to understand, they just want to please and keep people happy. No ambition, no balls, no conflict. A shallow story kept abreast solely by Vikander’s performance.