The Danish Girl was always going to be a well-meaning but ineffective work, a boring modern day Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner that will shock few and will look ridiculously tame and safe to future audiences (if indeed there is any). Directed by Tom Hooper, the man behind a tin eared, emotionless musical and a WWII film in which the crowds cheer the King’s ability to announce a coming mass slaughter, it was even going to feel a bit underwhelming. But it is a surprise just how cack-handed a film The Danish Girl ultimately is.
Eddie Redmayne chases acclaim as Einar Wegener, or Lili, a man who suddenly realizes that he is actually a woman trapped in a man’s body. Einar is happily married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander), and there are both painters. Einar stands in as a model for Gerda and starts to develop an affinity for women’s clothing. This leads to an implausible prank in which Einar attends a social gathering as ‘Lili’, his female cousin from the country. However, Einar starts to realize that he can’t leave Lili behind, leading him to question who he really is. As Lili takes over, Einar and Gerda’s marriage becomes increasingly strained.
First, I don’t have a problem with the casting of Eddie Redmayne as a trans character. It is a choice that does show a prejudice against real trans performers, but it is also clearly a pragmatic choice, given that the majority of the running time, if not all of it, is taken up with Lili in a man’s body. Where the film does feel more problematic is in the fact that it has been made by a cis cast and crew, dealing with an issue that is not, forgive the term, theirs. One wonders will there be any trans people on the stage if The Danish Girl wins any of the awards that are so clearly its raison d’ȇtre. Add to this the fact that certain details of the real-life Wegener couple’s relationship have been omitted to avoid being too shocking (or too confusing to an audience less well-versed in trans issues), and we have a film on trans people, but made for a cis audience.
But none of that really matters all that much since the film is so hopelessly made you are left wondering how it ever got off the ground. Hooper, an odd director at the best of times, has created a leaden, bewildering film that feels avant-garde in its inability to emotionally engage the audience, so refined you pray for someone to throw a chair. And there are things here that should have worked. Gerda’s predicament – seeing the man she loves slowly disappearing, and yet accepting that she (Lili) is the better for it – is rich in dramatic possibilities, and Vikander does try her best, but the film never develops this enough. The reason for this might be that Hooper and writer Lucinda Coxon were too wary of showing Lili in a less than favourable light and so have tried to underscore Gerda’s pain. Gerda is never nothing but understanding, in case, presumably, a more bitter or angry Gerda becomes an audience surrogate. It means that any scene that is clearly intended as a dramatic pay-off (particularly one scene in which Gerda tells a doctor that she believes that her husband really is a woman – one already spoiled in the trailer) passes almost unnoticed. Other scenes ought to be just as powerful, but the film is somehow so inane that they don’t show through. A scene in which Lili strips in front of a mirror should be sad, but it is so drowned in tragic score and so rushed that it lacks subtly. A scene where she is beaten in a park by two thugs is so familiar and structurally inevitable (given that there is little enough conflict elsewhere) and done with so little spark, that it is thoroughly possible to forget it while you are watching it. The camerawork is frequently very poor and the framing is bewildering - Hooper decides during one dramatic moment to place a rather happy dog centre of the frame and staring into the camera. But bad form aside, it feels as if Hooper doesn’t think his audience can take a film like The Danish Girl without some sort of crutch – an overbearing score, an intensely familiar story set-up, characters entirely rid of their foibles and messiness. Hooper tells us to feel sad, but his film is so lifeless and ineffectual, that he can’t make us.
By the end, Hooper settles for Lili’s scarf flying off with the breeze, an image of freedom from restraint, a tragic death made triumphant, and surely a trick that can’t possibly still be fooling audiences. The Danish Girl is a drama that wants to be rewarded for tackling a trans subject, but it is so afraid of its subject that it rids it of all human complications and conflict. As such, it fundamentally does not trust its audience, feeling the need to deify trans issues in an effort to convince. An already understanding, compassionate audience will feel insulted, but mainly they’ll feel bored and, yes, disappointed. Meanwhile, those out-of-work trans performers and filmmakers are left to watch in silence, their own work undermined by industry disinterest, low budgets and uninspired niche distribution.