This Oscar-nominated (semi) biographical drama film tells the story of one of the first openly transgender women, Lili Elbe, who underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1930. Lili, born Einar Wegener, was a successful painter and was married to Gerda Wegener, also an artist. Directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) and starring Eddie Redmayne and Academy Award winning Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl explores the transition of Lili, along with the affect this has on her wife and relationships.
The best thing about this film undoubtedly is the performances. Redmayne and Vikander are invisible in their roles, both treating the delicate subject matter with respect and emotional depth. Vikander is the standout, her tragic portrayal of Gerda is where the majority of the film’s emotional resonance is the most effective. Although Redmayne is equally convincing and comfortable when playing the reserved Einar or the much more playful and flirtatious Lili, the truly moving scenes are watching Gerda witness her husband go through deep emotional and physical turmoil.
Hooper’s directing is good, but the lack of colour in the film underplays the potential of what could have been a visual storytelling device of Einar’s transition. The film is shot to look very grey throughout, and although this is representative of Einar’s inner feelings, colour could have brought the film to life when he is his true self as Lili.
My biggest issue with The Danish Girl, aside from the fact it gets lost in its second act and becomes unfortunately slow, is that it is marketed as a true-life story, when in fact, it is based on a fictional book. The majority of secondary characters here are fictional, the ending is left on a particularly touching (but false) moment, and the true justice to Lili and Gerda is never reached. The film is tackling an issue which is more prominent than ever in our society, yet by telling a fictionalised version of real events, it becomes problematic. How can you discuss such an important issue without telling it properly? This, for me, is where the film ultimately falters, and with this knowledge, it is hard to find any connection with its characters. A scene where Lili is beat up for her appearance loses all its meaning when that event never happened in real life, and has clearly been put on the screen to inspire sympathy. Truly, I think it would be far more respectful to have made this film based on Lili’s published memoirs.
Overall, I would award The Danish Girl 3/5. A worthwhile subject matter, breathtaking performances and a great first act, but ultimately a film that falls flat.