“The Danish Girl” sounds like the title of a Vermeer portrait, with its moody subject decorously posed in soft north European light. Tom Hooper’s film uses that sort of staid, tasteful artistic approach to depict the extraordinary life of Einar Wegener. Overuses it, honestly.
A successful Copenhagen artist, Wegener began in the 1920s presenting himself under the name Lili Elbe, while married to an equally successful painter, Gerda Wegener. In the early 1930s, while still partnered with Gerda, Einar became one of the first recorded recipients of experimental sexual reassignment surgery.
Based on David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same name, Hooper’s beautifully shot dramatic biography plays like an extended PBS special for art history buffs. It is well honed, engaging and accessible, stocked with handsome period piece images of life a century ago, unfailingly mature. And a bit wearisome.
Eddie Redmayne, playing the lead character of Einar/Lili, opens the film in warm spirits, happily married to Gerda (fast rising star Alicia Vikander of “Ex Machina”) in the sort of shabby chic apartment decor that sells well at Restoration Hardware. They are artistic rivals and at times each other’s muse. His popular canvases are moody landscapes of the seaside where he spent his glum childhood before moving to the big city. She is the more dominant of the pair, tossing off racy pictures of attractive women.
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Each painterly worldview gives us a vision of the artist’s inner being. The rather androgynous husband still has sad memories of his youth, especially the time his father punished him for a kissing session with a male schoolmate. The powerhouse wife finds female figures more thrilling than males. “For a man to submit to a woman’s gaze,” she tells a plump financier she is painting, “it’s unsettling.” Early on, there’s a suggestion that the couple’s overlapping interests inspire vigorous bedroom action off-screen. “I’m wondering if we made a baby last night,” Gerda says in the morning, a development Einar would seemingly welcome as thankfully as any mainstream dad to be. But their marriage is about to produce quite a different newcomer.
The plot thickens significantly when Gerda asks Einar to pose his slender body as a stand-in for an absent model. Drawing silk stockings over his legs and caressing a pretty dress against his chest leaves him staggered with pleasure. Soon the pair are playing sex-role games of dress-up that arouse long-veiled realities about Einar. As they slip into the streets and parties with him in the character of Einar’s dainty cousin Lili, the couple deal with his long-repressed, and now increasing, feelings. Gerda’s erotic nudes begin to feature Lili’s demure smile. The marriage becomes a three-way relationship between Einar, Gerda and Lili, love balanced against a persistent edge of misery. Then it evolves further still.
Redmayne, who reportedly studied for the part with guidance from transgender advisers, plays both Einar and his alter ego Lili more than capably. As his feminine demeanor increases, he begins avoiding eye contact like a shy provincial girl, and his/her body language is flawless. He fits screenwriter Lucinda Coxon’s delicate Einar/Lili well. But the character seems designed to simplify a complex trans story into a form friendly to middlebrow mainstream audiences.
Einar/Lili’s decline into martyrdom, as midwar Europe views homosexuality as a disease and transgenderism as a mystery, moves the film toward being a gender studies disease-of-the-week TV drama. A printed epigraph at the close proclaims “Her bravery and pioneering spirit remain an inspiration for today’s transgender movement.” That’s the sort of farewell you receive from a narrative that is scrupulous, solemn and aimed right at the soft target of your compassion.
The Danish Girl
Rated: R for some sexuality and nudity. Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard. Director: Tom Hooper. Running time: 119 minutes. Theater: Flicks.