It’s the most cynical thing in the world. Former Oscar winners? Check. Based on a true story set in the early 1900s? Check. Gay* person that dies? Check.
The Danish Girl was set up to be one of the most insufferably pretentious movies ever made, but it is surprisingly tolerable, almost entirely because of Alicia Vikander.
The film tells the story of Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), who became the first known person to undergo gender correction surgery in 1931 to become Lili Elbe**. Wegener and his wife, Gerda (Vikander), come up with Elbe as a joke when he dresses up as a woman for one of her portraits. From there, Wegener’s latent desire to become a woman takes hold, and the majority of the movie is spent focusing on his suffering through gender dysphoria, a condition that wouldn’t even be recognized until 1980, let alone studied, and the dissolution of his and Gerda’s marriage. Elbe — Lili Ilse Elvenes, her name was in real life — eventually underwent one of the first recorded gender transition surgeries, but died of organ rejection after the final surgery to implant a uterus.
At this point, it’s safe to say that director Tom Hooper is just not that great. His style is nondescript and produces largely boring movies, and out of four feature films, the past three have been flagrant late-year Oscarbate. He doesn’t really take charge of films the way a director should, instead relying on Oscar buzz and/or being based on an internationally treasured stage play and strong performances to draw viewers in. When your film is lead by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, that can end up working out, but if you’re also operating under the delusion that Redmayne is even a barely competent actor, it’s begging for trouble.
The Danish Girl features maybe the biggest disparity of acting talent between any pair of leads ever. Redmayne is one of the worst actors in the world, and that’s because he doesn’t really act. He memorizes his character’s lines and quirks and delivers them just as memorized no matter what else is going on. In The Danish Girl, you get the distinct impression he could have had a meteor shower behind him and been playing against a lamp instead of Vikander and his delivery wouldn’t change. This is a problem because of how acting is supposed to work once it gets to the stage of actually creating a scene. Acting is a collaborative thing, and needs to be for a scene to really come alive. When you come in with ideas too specific to combine with others, it blocks out that creativity. Because Redmayne isn’t actually in character, it prevents scenes from developing organically and prevents actors around him from raising him to their level, which is what should have happened here.
At the other end of the spectrum is Vikander. Where Redmayne struggles through every line, she prances effortlessly throughout the film. The difference is palpable. In many of their scenes together, Vikander’s shots seem to breeze by, and Redmayne turns his few seconds into an eternity as he works through his pre-rehearsed sketch.
Nudity is another power dynamic between the duo. Vikander has no secrets after Ex Machina, and her character simply walks around the house naked. But when it comes time for the pivotal scene when Wegener stands before a mirror, tucks his genitalia between his legs and does the “Would you fuck me?” Redmayne is terrified of viewers seeing his penis, to the point that Hooper had to give him final cut over the scene. I’m the last person in the world who wants to see Redmayne’s junk, but if you’re afraid to do full frontal nudity, accepting a role that calls for it is highly unprofessional.
Almost as difficult to believe as Redmayne’s performance is his character’s transgender representation, which is the other major issue with this movie. Wegener’s behavior is less in line with gender dysphoria, which is characterized by disgust with one’s own genitals and extreme depression symptoms, and seem more like split personality disorder. He’ll be a man at one time, then suddenly dress up as Elbe and, extremely annoyingly, pretend to have no memory of his life as Wegener, or vice versa. Hooper has said in interviews that this idea was taken directly from Elvenes’ diaries, in which she would refer to herself and Wegener as different people.
Typically, that’s not at all how being transgendered works in 2016. It’s not something you waffle between — unless you’re talking about gender fluidity, which is also not associated with straight-up split personality episodes — it’s a decision. Not even a decision, it’s something you simply realize as true. And if this movie were only about Elvenes and her personal experience, which it is if you ignore the marketing and context, that’d be fine. However, The Danish Girl has positioned itself as the trans movie, the same way Carol has positioned itself as the lesbian movie and Brokeback Mountain and Milk positioned themselves as the gay movie, which means anything in it that’s atypical of trans people is a big deal.
In short, in a biopic that heavily altered this person’s life — which is a standard, usually OK thing to do — they were faithful to one distinctive quirk that is very rare in a very poorly understood community, then marketed the movie as an authentic representation of this person’s life. Which — though it was never expressly sold this way — in the context of being one of the first trans focused movies, necessarily means implying it is also an authentic representation of the trans community, which it decidedly isn’t. So it’s problematic in some ways but not in others.
Stepping outside the film, The Danish Girl is pretty much all problematic. It started with casting Redmayne instead of an actual trans person, which Hooper justified by saying, essentially, that no one else is casting trans people either — poor director, extremely poor human being — and continues with the research that was done. Several trans actors were used as extras. There was a call for trans persons to do unpaid consulting work on the film, and Redmayne interviewed as many trans people as he could find, most notably Lana Wachowski, who had recently directed him in Jupiter Ascending, but no one was paid for this. Money means respect in the film industry, just like in any other, and there is a lot of money related to The Danish Girl that didn’t go into the pockets of trans people. Trans critics have certainly not taken to it, either.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. This seems like a bad idea. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.
*Lili Ilse Elvenes wasn’t gay, she was transexual — a straight woman born in a man’s body. There’s a difference, I know. However, the Academy has a mildly disturbing history of handing out awards for playing gay people that die, and for most intents and purposes, Redmayne’s performance is being awarded for the same reason — playing off one’s own sexuality is viewed as an incredibly brave thing because, deep down, the Academy still thinks of LGBTs as lesser. That said, his character is the second nominated trans person that dies in the past three years after Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor for his appalling Dallas Buyers Club character in 2013.
**A note on pronouns — I, unlike this movie, am aware of a lot of the hardships facing the trans community. One of the major ones is misgendering, when a person is referred to by the name and pronouns related to their born gender. In many cases, they’re even buried under the names and pronouns they’ve rejected, a profoundly horrific fate. As such, when referring to the real-life Elvenes, we will obviously be using her preferred name and pronouns. The ethical principle behind this is respect for her bodily autonomy and decisions about how she is referred to — Elvenes actively made the choice to be known as a woman. However, the character in The Danish Girl, who was heavily altered from what is known about Elvenes, doesn’t. He exists almost entirely as a man in the midst of an identity crisis, alternating between two poles represented by Wegener and Elbe. For this and several other reasons, it is simply more accurate to refer to him as a man and by the name Einar Wegener. If this seems insensitive, and it probably should, watch the movie and you’ll see what I’m on about.