- Movie Rating -

The Danish Girl (2015)

| December 2, 2015

The timing for a movie like The Danish Girl could not be more perfect. Here is the true story of Einar Wegener, the celebrated Danish artist who became the first recorded case of sex reassignment surgery in history coming out right as publicity about Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, and the critically acclaimed show “Transparent” are pushing all those worn out water cooler jokes right into the trash cans of history. The movie is a loving tribute not only to Wegener’s courage in trying to find his own sexual identity during a time when such a thing could easily lead to mental institution, but also to the love and devotion of his wife Gerta who stood by him during his journey of self discovery.

And yet . . . the movie left me cold.

For all its emotional outpouring, mainly from a wonderful performance by Eddie Remayne as Wegener, The Danish Girl never quite hits the high points that I was waiting for. There’s an undercurrent of expression that seems buried and never hits its emotional peak. That doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t engaging. It is a very involving story, and very well acted, but something feels restrained.

We meet Wegener at the height of his fame in the 1920s, married to the fellow painter Gerta Gottlieb (Alicia Vikander) whose work was no less brilliant but far less successful. Einar and Gerta’s marriage is loving and lovingly active. Yet, for Einar, there is some piece missing, something in his soul is stirring to get out and as the movie opens those feelings emerge one day when Gerta, short for a deadline, asks him to put on a dress to pose for her painting. That’s when the dam breaks and all the things that Einar has been struggling with finally bubble to the surface.

It becomes clear that what Einar has been feeling is not so much passionate affection for his wife (which he has) but a need to be near her, and a need to be who she is. When he touches her underwear it isn’t because it’s sexy, but because he longs to be qualified to be in it. When he stares at women at a party, it isn’t out of lust, but out of envy. Gerta is, much to our surprise, very open to this. She’s willing to embrace her man’s budding orientation even if it is likely to make them social outcasts. She starts painting portraits of “Lili” but doesn’t tell anyone that it’s her husband. They even take Lili (to which he eventually changes his name) out in public where no one ever suspects that it is really Einar.

This, naturally, does not bode well with society at large. Early in the film a doctor gets Einar to open up about his sexuality and almost immediately prescribes shock treatment, reminding us that this was a time when doctors could essentially play God, prescribing dangerous “corrective measures” or simply locking a person away with no trial, examination or good reason. Clinically, this was to be his fate until, later, he met an enterprising (and far more open minded) doctor who suggested that Einar be part of his experiments in sex reassignment. That comes at the very end of the movie and is difficult to watch when you know that it eventually claimed his life.

What works best are the performances by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander who lovingly recreate what must have been the most challenging relationship that any married couple might have had. She’s accepting of her husband wearing lingerie under his suits and seems even a bit turned on.  She sees it as kind of a kinky dress-up.  The two start stepping out on the town together, not as husband and wife but as two girls on the town.  For Gerta, this is a step that she finds that she must be forced to face, that Lili is becoming her husband’s dominant personality.  Naturally, she feels the weight of how odd this situation is.

The film allows us into the tight, closed-in spaces that Wegener seemed to occupy, symbolizing the confinement that he must have felt in real life. Redmayne, fresh off his Oscar win as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything gives us a performance that is achingly sad. He’s a very expressive actor who always seems on the edge of bursting at the seams. And yet, like his performance as Hawking, he does wonderful work in a movie that I can’t fall in love with. The film is too remote, too distance, too unwilling to engage us. The pieces are there, the story is well told but the emotional notes seem to be missing.

My other problem with the film is that while it celebrates Wegener’s personal struggle it comes up very light on displaying his work. Wegener painted beautiful watercolors mostly of women and one suspects that they were all pried from personal expression. Yet, the work seems only fleeting in the movie, and I think that’s a major misstep, if an artist’s work in an expression of his soul then why don’t we see him doing more of it? We see it, but we don’t feel the passion that he poured into it. Gerta is actually the one who does more of the painting in the movie and it is never expressed why she wasn’t more successful. It is hinted that it’s because she was a woman but we never really get that.

The Danish Girl is a movie that I struggled to like. There are two beautiful performances here but I couldn’t get to the emotions that I was supposed to feel. The director is Tom Hooper, who previously made the Best Picture winner of 2010, The King’s Speech, another story of a famous man attempting to hide an embarrassing truth. That film worked because we felt the struggle for King George who needed to be a lion for his country as the Nazis were stomping all over Europe, but was held back by an embarrassing stutter.  The difference with The Danish Girl is that we never get to the middle of Wegener’s true struggle with society at large. Yes, he’s given shock treatments. Yes, he’s beaten up by street thugs. But there’s an element of danger missing from the film, something that I was supposed to feel but did not.  This is a good and human film with greatness that is never allowed to come out.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2015) View IMDB Filed in: Drama