Unlike most of us who are fine with our sexual identity, some people are not comfortable with their body, and many of them are willing to go outside our conventional definition of sexuality. Regardless of whether we approve of this or not, we can only imagine what they feel before and after they make their final decision on that medical surgery which will affect their life and body forever in many ways.
Compared to its fascinating real-life hero who was one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery, “The Danish Girl” does not have its – pardon my language – balls to lose. While it does closely observe the transformation process he goes through, the movie is so mild and safe that it never goes deeper into the risks and challenges he and his devoted life partner come to face, and that is all the more disappointing, considering that it has two good performances which surely deserve better than this.
Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander play Einar and Gerda Wegener, a Danish painter couple living in Copenhagen of 1926. While Einar has been quite successful with his landscape paintings, Gerda has been frustrated with how her portrait paintings keep getting overlooked, but they are happy together as wholeheartedly supporting each other’s career.
On one day, Einar happens to be a temporary model for his wife’s painting when her ballerina model is being late. As posing with female apparel in front of his wife, he feels closer to his feminine side he has never fully faced before, and that is the small beginning of his gradual transformation. As time goes by, his alter ego is slowly emerged from inside him, and he finds himself more drawn to being ‘Lili Elbe’.
To Gerda, her husband’s change feels like a fun play at first. She lets her husband wear her bedroom clothes, and she helps him looking more feminine through her clothes and make-ups when they are about to go outside for a party where some of their friends will also attend. As artists, Einar and Gerda are not afraid of trying something new and interesting, and Lili and Gerda cannot help but be giddy and excited about their disguise in front of others. Although she is initially nervous, Lili has no problem in being introduced as Einar’s female cousin, and she even becomes the new model for Gerda, who is surprised by not only how much Einar looks different but also how Lili becomes a muse for Gerda’s unexpected artistic success.
But they feel more confused and conflicted as Lili puts more strains on their relationship. Lili gets herself involved with a guy named Henrik (Ben Whishaw), but then it turns out both of them want different things, and that hurts Einar as well as Gerda. She tries to understand and comfort her husband for maintaining their relationship, so she approaches to his old childhood friend Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts, who is as under-utilized as Whishaw) after she and Einar move to Paris later, but that only complicates their situation while Einar eventually decides upon what can be best for him – and her, perhaps.
Eddie Redmayne, who has been rapidly rising along with his solid works including a recent Oscar-winning turn in “The Theory of Everything” (2014), is well-cast in his role. With his boyish face and lithe appearance, he shows full commitment in his character’s tentative grasp of his true sexual identity during the first half of the film, and it is a shame that the movie does not give us enough human understanding of his character except some occasional dramatic moments to emphasize his torments and conflicts. No, I do not demand any cheap Freudian explanation on Einar’s sexuality, but the movie seems reserved and hesitant about who he is. In fact, it is also very reluctant to explore more into Lili’s relationships with two men around her, and that is why the second half of the movie feels particularly disappointing.
On the opposite, Alicia Vikander, who is deservedly Oscar-nominated along with her co-star, is equally wonderful as her character goes through her own struggles along the story. Gaining her own career success, Gerda becomes more confident than before, and she strongly believes that she and her husband can endure a big change in their marriage, but she only finds her doubts growing more and more as their relationship becomes more strained. Can their mutual love be remained same as before even after he goes beyond the point of no return? And can she still see her husband’s former self from his irreversibly changed appearance?
Probably because of the inherent limits in its real-life story, the screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, based on David Ebershoff’s novel which is a fictionalized account of Einar and Gerda’s relationship, often stumbles. That weakness becomes more problematic when Einar’s sex reassignment surgery begins in the end under the supervision of an understanding German doctor played by Sebastian Koch. It is indeed a very important incident for Einar and Gerda, but the depiction of the surgery and its aftermath is so soft and maudlin that you may mistake his surgery for a tonsillectomy if you do not pay enough attention to it.
“The Danish Girl” is a good-looking period drama film on the whole, and the director Tom Hopper, who previously won an Oscar for “The King’s Speech” (2010), did a tasteful job of taking us to a period when sexual minorities were unjustly regarded as perverts or mental patients. Its story may be well-intentioned, but it only scratches the surface of its potentially rich materials. As pointed out at the end of the movie, Einar was indeed brave enough to let himself changed into Lili permanently through a very risky experimental surgery, but, folks, do we really get to know either of them? To be frank with you, I am not so sure about that.