There’s something about Eddie Redmayne that just crushes your soul. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing — he’s a beautiful soul-crusher — but man, I feel like every time I sit down to a Redmayne movie, I’m going to leave feeling any one of, or a combination of, three things: 1) uncomfortably mortal, 2) disastrously under-accomplished, or 3) questioning my sexual identity.
The Danish Girl is no exception to this inevitability, though in this case, it is perhaps a bit more of a forced conclusion than in some of Redmayne’s other roles. In fact, all three of these reactions are obviously sought by the end of the film, with the lead dying – “Shit, I’m so mortal!” – the two leads both being successful, talented artists – “Shit, I’m so bad at doing stuff good!” – and of course, the main character transitioning in order to become his true self – “Shit, what even is a ‘true self’?”
However, the real issue I take with this film, aside from the generally predictable feel of the method-acting made-for-Redmayne award-seeking plot, is that it isn’t actually accurate at all to the life of the person it is supposedly based off of, Lili Elbe (Elvenes), and her relationship with Gerda Wegener, played by the stunning and Oscar award-winning Alicia Vikander — but we’ll get to her later.
So here’s what happens in the movie: It’s the 1920s. Famous painter Eibar Wegener (Redmayne) plays dress-up with his painter wife, Gerda (Vikander). Eibar realizes that he likes wearing women’s clothing. Eibar and Gerda have fun dressing up together while Eibar adopts the nickname “Lili,” until Gerda realizes that Eibar isn’t really pretending after all. Being a good and loving wife, Gerda stands by Eibar as he makes the decision to fully transition into Lili, starting first with dressing up and presenting as female, and finally, by undergoing sex reassignment surgery – the first ever performed. In the end, Eibar, now identifying as Lili, dies from her second sex reassignment surgery with Gerda by her side. Tears are shed, feels are felt, dramatic music is played.
Now here’s what happened in real life: Eibar and Gerda are married in 1904. By 1920, Gerda is openly living her life as a lesbian in Paris, while Eibar is openly presenting as female, as Lili. In 1930, the couple’s marriage is annulled. Though Gerda is around for some of Lili’s surgeries, she is not around for the final surgery and she has already remarried another man and moved to Italy by the time of Lili’s death. Lili actually dies during her fifth surgery, not during her second, and is not joined in her final hours by Gerda, but rather her steady boyfriend of the time, art dealer Claude Lejeune. She’s also not the first to have sex reassignment surgery; Dora Richter, born Rudolph Richter, was castrated in 1922, 8 years before Lili Elbe’s first surgery.
Here’s why this is problematic: rather than tell the true story, which certainly had its own drama, depth, intrigue, and suspense, The Danish Girl takes the predictable, if not easy, way out, by creating not a story of bravery and independence in the assertion of true self, but instead, sigh, a love story. Womp womp womp. And what I can’t wrap my head around is why. If someone were to propose each of the aforementioned timelines to me and ask me to choose which to turn into a movie, I would, without hesitation, choose the second. Sure, there’s a certain poignancy to the former, with the wife sticking by the husband through everything (or was that The Theory of Everything?), but there’s just so much more to work with in the latter. A heteronormative marriage that becomes a split relationship with one partner becoming a lesbian while the other is revealed as trans, followed by the story of each of those respective partners as they come into their own and meet new lovers, then the final timelines of each of them on their separate paths in which one may not survive, but the other may never really be able to come to terms with her true self, and really, which state of being is worse? See? Drama. In fact, though I do jest with the comparisons to The Theory of Everything, at least that story was ballsy enough to tell it as it was: Jane and Steven did not survive everything together, love did not conquer all, and in real life, sometimes “soulmates” have an expiration date.
Ultimately, I was disappointed in The Danish Girl because it claimed to be a transformative film (literally), but failed to take any of the risks that would have truly earned it that title. While it’s true that I still left this movie feeling those three self-conscious emotions listed previously, I also felt a fourth: cheated. The Danish Girl feels cheapened by the forced and fictional love story of Elba and Gerda, and in the end, seems to be more interested in claiming to be a voice for marginalized persons and their stories, rather than genuinely being one.
With this in mind, while I do believe that Vikander’s Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in this film was well-deserved and her portrayal of Gerda as the script writes her is excellent, I can’t help but wish that she had been able to play the character of the real Gerda Wegener — not the romanticized, Hollywood version of her. Vikander’s performance would have soared with the depth and personal development of the real Wegener’s story, rather than being dulled by the “love conquers all” plot-line so obviously sought by director Tom Hooper. Still, operating within the limitations of pussy-footed writing, Vikander did an excellent job, and is perhaps, after everything, the best reason to see this film in the first place.
Redmayne: rote, but portending.
Vikander: excellent, but deprived of a true character.
The Danish Girl: too much, and not nearly enough.