Altering the history and gender of ‘The Danish Girl’


Special To The Japan Times

Are you into Scandinavian design? If you are, “The Danish Girl” will have you swooning. Even the first 10 seconds of the opening scene will provoke design envy and, for those who care about the details, Copenhagen apartment envy, circa 1926. Director Tom Hooper is clearly enthralled by Danish art and artists, and the camera lingers long and lovingly over the blue-gray shades of the Danish sky, the incredible white nights of its summers and the elusive beauty of the light that inspired so many artists. “The Danish Girl” is a fictional biopic of Lili Elbe, but Hooper’s attention often wanders from that subject, as he focuses on curating the breathtaking beauty and elegance suspended in the frame.

While Hooper’s appreciation of Danish light and art provides an intensely satisfying experience, sadly the same cannot be said for what actually takes place in the film. Based on a novel of the same name by David Ebershoff and adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon, “The Danish Girl” examines the bond between a wife and her husband, a man who needs to break out of his shell and is almost entirely dependent on her to do so. Hooper also directed “The King’s Speech,” the multiple Oscar winner that was also about marriage, and the bond that triggered a husband to become a greater man than he was before. But while Hooper was entirely focused on the pair in that film, the director seems to lack conviction in “The Danish Girl.” The result is a somewhat pedestrian and heavily sanitized take on an incredibly interesting, unconventional relationship.

In Copenhagen in the 1920s, married couple Gerda and Einar Wegener (Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne) live happily as painters. Gerda makes striking portraits, while Einar’s specialty is landscapes inspired by childhood memories. When their best friend Ulla (Amber Heard) is late for a sitting for one of Gerda’s paintings, Gerda asks Einar to drape a ballerina’s dress over his body so she can finish up certain details. Einar obliges, and then discovers that he loves the feel of silk and chiffon against his skin.

Gerda is amused by his delight and encourages the introverted Einar to go to a party dressed up as “Lili Elbe,” whom Gerda introduces to the guests as Einar’s cousin from the country. Lili is an immediate hit, and gains an admirer in Henrik (Ben Whishaw), who declares her beautiful. Einar realizes that he had been living a lie, and confesses to Gerda he doesn’t feel like a man anymore.

Redmayne has the femininity thing down: the way Lili shyly averts her gaze when a man looks at her, the scarlet lipstick that offsets the curl of her lips, how she runs her fingers on her dresses and turns the action into a statement of sensuality. Redmayne’s skill serves as both the movie’s conceit and foil: Lili Elbe strives to be a woman, but she ends up being a flimsy caricature. Einar even stops painting, since that had been the work he had been doing as a man.

The real Lili Elbe was a pioneering transgender woman in a time when such people were viewed as perverted sociopaths, and in the film Gerda takes great effort to find a sympathetic doctor who will perform a sex change operation for Einar. In an online interview, Hooper commented that people were much more “giving” with their love in the 1920s and apparently that’s his explanation for why Gerda does what she does.

But really — is that it? The story somehow circumvents the pain and emotional conflict that must arise from this situation. You can see hints of it in Gerda’s face and eyes, though, and Vikander’s performance homes in on the core of Gerda’s devotion to Einar, and the struggle to maintain her equilibrium and own personal identity. She rightfully won an Oscar for best actress in a supporting role. Is it just me or is there a slight ring of irony in there somewhere?