Loosely telling the true story of Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, The Danish Girl takes great care. It’s a movie made by straight cisgender men, and so unavoidably viewed from the outside in, but is nonetheless a good-faith effort to portray a time – the 1920s and 30s – that lacked the language for and sensitivity to describe and accept Lili. She was born in a man’s body, married to a woman who loved her, and was lucky to find a few, close people who could find their way to an understanding of her entire self. Some doctors told her she was insane, spoke of curing her “aberrant” thoughts. But Lili knows she’s a woman, and slowly finds satisfying expressions of that truth. The film is a message movie, with the fragile weepy qualities of a work of art out to engage its audience’s morals. And yet it’s also an intimate, at times lovely, movie of relationships, a mostly responsible and sensitive approach befitting our modern views on the subject.
“I feel as though I’m performing myself,” Lili (Eddie Redmayne) says, lamenting heading out in public as the person Copenhagen society knows as Einar Wegener, a landscape painter of some note, and a man. The art world fawns over Einar, while wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), also a painter, struggles to get her portraits taken seriously by dealers and critics. It’s an interesting tangle of gender norms and performance. For Lili, going out to parties as Einar is putting up a falsehood, conforming to the world’s expectations of how a man should be. For Gerda, being a woman causes her serious ambitions to go overlooked. Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon is attuned to the role gender plays in this world, ceding a man certain inherent seriousness while leaving a women with equal talent frequently dismissed. “Men are not used to being looked at,” Gerda says, while a frumpy middle-aged man getting his portrait painted squirms before her canvas. The one who holds the brush holds the power of public perception, even if the public doesn’t realize it.
Lili and Gerda are both artful freethinkers, open-minded enough to play with gender fluidity at home. When Gerda is desperate for a model for a new painting, she asks her husband to wear stockings and a dress to pose for her. Redmayne, bringing shy posture and fluttering facial expressions, does his best to communicate his character’s discomfort with the way people see her, and what she sees when she looks in the mirror. But posing for Gerda is a glimpse of freedom, and the married couple has a loving, tender relationship deep in compassion and understanding. Gerda enjoys participating in bringing Lili’s full expression, coaxing her husband to join her at the next local event, helping with makeup, high heels, and wig. Gerda thinks it’s a fun game to play with her husband. Lili knows it’s more serious; it’s her reality. The movie follows this couple in a love story between married people, as they grow to learn more about each other, and find new ways of living together by living more truthfully.
Lili finds being herself thrilling and freeing, but also frightening. In public, she is happily herself, and yet self-conscious feeling others watch her, especially feeling the male gaze fall on her, where even a seemingly nice man can turn insistent and predatory. Coxon’s screenplay works with the duality of what Lili knows she is, and the way others force their gaze upon her. As Gerda’s works gain popularity, hundreds of people are looking at paintings of Lili, demanding to meet the model, to learn more about this alluring subject. And yet the film’s lens never quite laps up Redmayne the way it does Vikander, allowing her to appear with the soft sensuality of a graceful classical nude, while he’s trapped behind a layer of fragile glass, a specimen seen in mirrors, or through layers of window panes. It puts a focus on the pain of being told the way you were born is wrong, while the heroism is in other’s acceptance. Redmayne remains a pretty and unknowable object. It’s why Tangerine and Transparent, which have trans characters as full, complicated individuals in stories about more than their identities, are more relevant, exciting, and progressive.
But there’s genuine loving charge between the leads in The Danish Girl, and that carries the movie. Vikander and Redmayne are extraordinary actors, she utterly natural and at ease in every moment, he a talented inhabitor of ticks and traits. They work well together, enlivening what could be stiffly refined period piece waterworks with a real sense of humanity. Director Tom Hooper, with the likes of John Adams and The King’s Speech, is familiar with this sort of well-intentioned, softly inspirational historical drama. He brings to it his trademark visual approach: a muddy overcast look of theatrical realism and blocking that pushes performers to the edges of the frames, leaving plenty of negative space for patterned walls and period detail. It’s less insistent here than elsewhere in his filmography (and certainly less than in his previous film, the trompingly moving musical Les Misérables), perhaps because he was feeling the pressure of getting every detail handled appropriately and sensitively. He keeps a close focus on his leads, as well as a sharply cast ensemble (including Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Sebastian Koch), delicately attuned to their encounters with a concept they’re trying to wrap their heads around.
But because The Danish Girl is a safe movie with a 2015 understanding of Lili, it never gives itself over entirely to the mess and the thrill of the story’s historical moment, to be on the cutting edge of a new understanding. It’s stately when it should be passionate, more engaged with Lili’s inner life. Hooper focuses on surfaces – paints on canvases, a hand caressing a wardrobe of fur coats, a leg stretching in silk stockings, a scarf fluttering in the wind, a mirror through which a tastefully full-frontal Lili practices a new self-image – instead of finding ways to evoke an interior wrestling with identity issues. It results in a finely textured film, of beautiful images and admirable restraint, but little engagement with Lili beyond a glossy coming-out arc, the pioneering medical narrative, and the patient warmth of those who loved her. It’s an attractively mounted historical romance with a fascinating hook, heartfelt and movingly acted, but always on the outside looking in. It’s a good movie, with a better, more complicated, one buried under its surfaces.