With a powerful pair of performances from Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl is dressed to the nines, but can’t quite get under the skin.
Silk Stockingsby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Opening with reflections of lifeless trees, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl is – much like his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech – a very handsome study of affliction. There are the beautiful costumes that Eddie Redmayne’s Einar runs his hands through, and the scarves, dresses and wigs he gets to wear – as well as beautifully lit parties and Danish sets – with orderly streets of ochre houses and receptions in rooms of a fine flint grey. But much like the wintry trees that Einar paints, there is something lurking deep within his reflection – suddenly revealed in a full-frontal mirror sequence (albeit nipped and tucked), where Einar suddenly recognises himself as a woman. The only problem is, Eddie Redmayne’s Einar is already so charming, and his relationship with Gerda so perfect, who are we to want his tawdry identity dredged from the deep?
Copenhagen, 1926. Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a successful artist, painting and repainting a familiar motif of leafless trees overlooking the fjord in his hometown of Vejle. His wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) is also a wannabe artist, earning a living painting portraits, but unable to find her true voice. Until that is, she asks Einar one day to stand in for her friend Ulla (Amber Heard). Donning silk stockings, squeezing into a pair of embroidered flats and striking the pose with a champagne chiffon dress, Einar discovers a new female soul buried deep within. Ulla enters and christens Einar’s alter ego Lili, and it’s not long before Gerda finds her muse, heading out to a party with Lili in Einar’s place. Lili, however, takes on a life of her own, seduced by (homosexual) Henrik (Ben Whishaw) and disappearing out on dates. With their marriage at stake, Einar looks for a cure. But threatened with all sorts of hokum treatments, Einar and Gerda head to Paris, eager to follow their art careers, meet up with childhood friend and art dealer Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) and find a better solution to their extraordinary problem.
Playing somewhat fast and loose with the details of Einar Wegener’s marriage to lesbian Gerda Gottlieb, rather than a marriage of convenience between two unconventional souls, Einar and Gerda’s romance is revolutionised into a passionate, all-conquering love – at threat from a queer sexuality. And it’s by no means an entirely bad thing, depicting a marriage of equals and raising Gerda’s profile as she struggles – just as much as Einar – to come to terms with the new girl in their conjugal bed. For while it’s a trajectory of self-realisation for Einar, for Gerda it’s a slow stripping away of her husband and best friend, her sexuality and marriage, as she ends up quartered with a sister of sorts, the somewhat neurotic, anorexic Lili. This endless love between Einar and Gerda, however, does undermine the narrative of Einar’s road to womanhood – creating an illusion of heterosexual normalcy until Einar finds himself unable, all of a sudden, to resist the rustle of crisp chiffons.
Just like the moment when Einar poses for Gerda for the first time, all these “moments” – from Einar running his hands voluptuously along a rack of theatre costumes, to his polished entry into the clinic in Dresden, Hooper chooses the textural and the physical to describe his hero’s yearning, The Danish Girl unfortunately lacking any real understanding of what it might be like to find one’s self trapped in the wrong body. Both Vikander and Redmayne are breathtaking, and while Redmayne’s performance as Lili becomes a slightly mannered array of tilted necks, sinuous arms and eyelids fluttering like newly expupated butterflies, it’s not altogether unjust. But in the end, unable to summon up the raw story of a man unearthing his hidden, illicit identity, The Danish Girl becomes instead a biopic – extravagantly documenting the fatal attempt of Lili Elbe to undergo the first gender reassignment surgery under the knife of Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch).
Ending with the poetic image of Lili’s scarf fluttering over the Velje fjord, The Danish Girl offers a moving closure – both for Gerda, finally released from the pain of watching her husband suffer – and for Einar, who somehow managed to find his true reflection and a verdant life worlds away from the melancholy trees of his youth. And yet, for Hooper’s film, it’s a neat closure that draws an all-too-easy veil over Einar Wegener’s troubled life. Rather than celebrating his revolutionary step forward, The Danish Girl mourns Lili’s passing as if it’s a tragic inevitability, allowing Eddie Redmayne’s luminescent Lili not to go out with a bang, but with a delicately whispered whimper.
The Danish Girl is released on 1st January 2016 in the UK