The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper's portrait of Jazz Age painters Gerda Wegener and her spouse Einar, who butterflied into Lili Elbe via the first sex-reassignment surgery, is about gender and it isn't. Like its subject, it's fatally resolved to fit an ideal: the noble Oscar-bait biopic. If the script swapped transsexuality for heroin addiction, the beats of the story would scarcely change. There are secret jaunts, desperate doctor visits,
Redmayne plays Lili like a saint. Yet there's sedition in the script and a showdown for the film's soul as Vikander, the stronger actor of the two, forces us to witness how much Gerda loses to give Lili life. I've seen it twice, and I still can't figure out how Hooper feels about his characters. He and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon at first present this as a sort of horror story. At the start, Gerda and Einar are happy heterosexuals who hump like rabbits, the kind of couple that sickens their friends. One day, she begs him to pose for her in stockings and heels, and suddenly a woman, Lili, bursts from his heart like the monster from Alien, killing its host. To Gerda's dismay, the two stop having sex and switch from lovers to girlfriends. We rarely see them kiss again. Hooper has already sold us on their hot-blooded romance — the switch happens so fast we get whiplash. "We were playing a game!" Gerda says, and Lili's emergence almost has the feel of one.
At first, Einar can't articulate his confusion. This was, after all, a time before today's vocabulary existed, causing doctors, the villains of the film, to diagnose him with every disease from a cancerous growth to schizophrenia. Instead, Redmayne translates Lili's urges in lingering looks at silk dresses, which suggest that the film doesn't understand her deeper needs. Neither, perhaps, does Lili, who doesn't appear to be attracted to anything other than her own reflection. Her focus — and the film's — is on the external: the fringed scarves, the elaborate gowns, the attention-getting red wig that overshadows Gerda's mousy bob.
There's an electric moment when Lili attends her first party and blushes as the
With Redmayne reduced to poses and smiles, Vikander wrests the movie away to show us how a truly modern woman behaves. As a portrait artist, she commands her male subjects to "yield"; as a lover, she's eager to make the first move — she even asked Einar out on their first date. Later, when her paintings of Lili are a hit, Gerda dedicates herself to her
But the third
If The Danish Girl dared to critique its main characters, it would be brave. If it had celebrated a modern marriage that worked for 26 years — much longer and stranger than the film lets on — it would be truly pioneering. Real life is full of
The Danish Girl
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, and Matthias Schoenaerts. Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by Lucinda Coxon. Based on the novel by David Ebershoff. 120 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday, December 25, at the Classic Gateway Theatre (1820 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-763-7994; thegatewaytheatre.com).