The Danish Girl is a beautiful and touching film loosely based on the story of one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander’s performances, as well as the costume and production design, are all worthy of their Oscar nominations. But something just doesn’t sit right with me about it. Tom Hooper, who by his third film now establishes a pattern as a genteel director of a Masterpiece Theater kind, isn’t the right match for this material. It needed an edge, as the 1920s and transexualism were a dangerous match. I would have liked to see what Todd Haynes would have done with it.
Redmayne is a Danish painter of some reputation. He is married to Vikander, who is also a painter. They live a happy but childless life in Copenhagen. One day, while painting a large portrait of a woman, Vikander’s model doesn’t show up. She asks Redmayne to put on stockings and pumps and hold some diaphanous gown in his lap. He fingers the material sensually, and we can see the light bulb going off in his head. Later, Vikander will ask him if she caused what happened, and it’s a good question, as the film implies that it does, though he denies it.
Later, they will play a game in which Vikander dresses her husband up as “Lily” and passes “her” off as Redmayne’s cousin. They get a kick out of it, but Redmayne slowly becomes consumed by his alter-ego, and he starts to see doctors for a cure. Most want to lock him up or give him a lobotomy (he scoots out of the window of one doctor before he can be put in a straitjacket). He undergoes radiation treatment on his privates, which couldn’t have been pleasant. Finally a doctor in Germany (Sebastian Koch) tries a radical new procedure on him.
The film is breathtaking beautiful. Hooper and his cameraman, Danny Cohen, have used a painterly eye to match their subjects. The point of the view of the artist is a main theme running through the film, as if people could create themselves, or recreate themselves, as objets d’art.
But Hooper, and his screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (the source material is a novel, not a work of nonfiction) seem so hellbent on treating Lily respectfully that the whole this is defanged. I think Redmayne is brilliant–at the beginning he is a delicate but not effeminate man, but slowly, like a chrysalis, he turns into a woman (and wears the clothes quite well–if someone wants to do a biopic of David Bowie, here’s your actor). Vikander, in some ways, plays the more interesting role. She’s the supportive, kinky wife (when she first discovers him wearing her underwear it turns him on), but realizes that if he becomes a woman she will lose “him,” but out of love goes through it anyway.
Aside from the harrowing scenes at the doctors’ offices, there isn’t a sense of peril in the film that I think it needs. I imagine being a transvestite in the decadent ’20s in Denmark was probably the place to be a transvestite, but it was still a risky thing to be. I think of the decadence expressed in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, which is needed here. The Danish Girl is the most wholesome movie about transgender persons that could ever be made.