What makes a film “Oscar bait”? At a time when transgenderism is a media buzzword and biographical films about unsung heroes are a cinema staple, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl seems to tick all the boxes. The story about 1920s Danish painters Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegenar (Alicia Vikander), the former of whom was one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, seems tailored to be a critics’ favorite. Yet even as The Danish Girl presents itself as a serious film about serious themes, it has been dismissed as “awards bait” even before its release—good enough for the Academy, but not good enough to be great. Something, despite the big names and polished presentation, does not add up.
It is noteworthy that writer Lucinda Coxon’s The Danish Girl, unlike The Theory of Everything and Testament of Youth (recent biopics that have brought Redmayne and Vikander respective acclaim), is not an autobiography-adapted screenplay. Instead, it is based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name, which is itself a highly fictionalized reimagining of Elbe’s life. The nonfactual nature of the film means that challenging issues in the plot does not equate to questioning Elbe’s personal transgender experience—an important distinction to make.
The film opens with Einar and Gerda Wegenar enjoying married life in picturesque Copenhagen, where Einar is gaining fame for his landscape paintings while Gerda struggles to make a name for herself as a portrait artist. The two share not only a passion in art but also in each other: from the outset, their relationship is portrayed as an intensely sexual one. In fact, Einar’s first experiences in women’s clothing are a result of both art and sex—in a series of you-are-your-own-undoing sequences, Gerda encourages and helps Einar to perfect his female alter-ego Lili, both for artistic inspiration and erotic play. Meanwhile, Gerda’s paintings of Lili begin gaining traction for her career.
It is in the transformation of Einar to Lili where Redmayne, following his remarkable reproduction of Stephen Hawking’s physical change, amazes once again. With subtle shifts in the tilt of his neck, the bend of his wrist, the realignment of his stride, and the angle of his gaze, he inhabits the physicality of a woman. When we see Einar imitating Gerda or, in a cinematographically haunting scene, perfectly mirroring the movements of a peep show dancer, we feel like privileged guests at one of Redmayne’s rehearsals—spectators to an artistic process deserving genuine awe.
Yet as the film goes on, it becomes increasingly ambiguous as to whether the performative, often unnatural quality of Lili’s mannerisms is an intentional statement being made about her character or simply overshooting on Redmayne’s part. The suspicion that the Lili character is not meant to be played as someone with a full grasp of her new gender is reinforced by the differences in Gerda’s and Lili’s approaches to being women. When Gerda suggests that Lili start painting, Lili snaps, “I am to be a woman, not a painter,” to which Gerda bitterly replies, “Well, people have been known to do both.”
Ironically, Vikander’s depth and candidness in such scenes only draw the film’s flaws into the limelight. The naturalness and boldness with which Vikander commands her body make Lili’s gait seem excessively dainty by comparison; the sadness, rage, and bereavement that contorts her face make Lili’s forced smile seem eerily hollow. Interestingly, the only use of the titular “Danish girl” is in reference to Gerda. The film seems unwilling to choose between its two leads: on the one hand, Lili/Einar is the main draw, particularly amid recent conversations on transgenderism, yet even as The Danish Girl tries to focus its cameras on Redmayne, it gravitates—somewhat unwillingly—toward Gerda as its heroine and Vikander as its star.
In this and many other respects, the film’s self-promotion as a groundbreaking stand for the trans community is problematic. For one thing, the complete separation of Einar and Lili as totally distinct people with different personalities, sexual orientations, interests, and worldviews, to the extent where Lili thinks of herself as “killing Einar,” adds a layer of dissociative identity disorder to Lili’s character. Without presuming to define transgenderism, this plot point seems to distinguish her case from the common understanding of transgender individuals as those who feel that their gender identity differs from their assigned sex.
Ultimately, Lili’s erasure of Einar serves more to make us empathize with Gerda than with Lili. While Lili’s bravery and resolve deserves admiration, she does not do much to deserve our love. Her withdrawal from Gerda and her yearning for a husband and child, “like a real woman,” only highlights her selfishness as well as her limited understanding of womanhood. In the end, despite extraordinary performances from both Vikander and Redmayne, The Danish Girl remains disappointingly confused in its character development—and just as muddled in its overall message.
Grade: B+. A must-see if you want to be well informed for the upcoming Oscars Best Motion Picture nominations. Not a must-see if you only want to see the winner.
The Danish Girl is rated R.