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She Enjoys Being a Girl

Focus Features
 119 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Tom Hooper 
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander
The Danish Girl

The term “Oscar bait” is used to describe a movie that seems to have been produced for the sole purpose of earning Oscar nominations. By that token, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl definitely qualifies as Oscar bait. His study of one of the first prominent transgender women features excellent performances by stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, and some lavishly authentic period costuming and production design. But, in this case successful attempts to garner Oscar nominations in those categories have come at the expense of the overall quality of the film itself. In short, Hooper has made a film that looks great rather than one that is great.


The Danish Girl is the story of the early 20th-century Danish painter born Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne). A successful landscape painter married to the less successful portrait painter Gerda (Alicia Vikander), Einar begins the movie a seemingly well-adjusted member of Copenhagen’s burgeoning artistic community. However, when Gerda asks him to stand in for a female model, donning ballet tights awakens some dormant emotions in Einar.


His transformation begins by wearing female garments to bed. At first, Gerda is amused and somewhat excited by the turn of events. Later, as Einar begins referring to himself as Lili Elbe, Gerda helps him shop and also offers advice and training in passing himself off as a woman. Eventually, the two go out in public, with Lili claiming to be Einar’s sister. Lili also becomes the subject of almost all of Gerda’s paintings, which begin selling quite well.


Eventually, both Lili and Gerda realize that Lili isn’t merely interested in dressing and posing as a woman; instead, Lili feels she is a woman. Lili does visit a variety of doctors to see what can be done about her condition, and the reaction she receives from the medical community is barbaric, ranging from attempts at therapy through radiation treatments to attempts at institutionalization. Eventually, the couple goes into seclusion.


Finally, Lili hears about a German doctor (Sebastian Koch), who is actually treating transgender patients by performing sexual reassignment surgery. Lili agrees to two operations, the first to remove her male organs, and the second, and far riskier one, to create female ones. Unfortunately, surgical techniques in the early 1930’s were not as advanced as those of today, and Lili does not fare well in her second surgery.


Although both Lili and Gerda wrote memoirs about their lives, The Danish Girl is actually based on a novel of the same name written in 2000 that took a number of liberties with the actual facts (including making Gerda an American) and imagined Lili’s inner thoughts. The film similarly plays fast and loose with the facts (in real life, Lili’s transformation occurred over nearly two decades, not a few months as suggested in the film). Under those circumstances, director Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon were free to imagine their two main characters any way they wanted.


One would think, under these circumstances, that the movie would try to explore Lili’s psyche and feelings as much as possible. For some reason, however, the film is surprisingly refined. Lili and Gerda cry on occasion, but there are few real emotional outbursts and never any scenes in which Lili attempts to explain to Gerda or the audience what she really feels in anything more than trite one-liners.


The audience actually learns more about Gerda in the movie than about Lili. Gerda at least confides in people, most notably Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), an old boyhood friend of Einar’s who was aware of his tendencies even back then. The relationship between Gerda and Hans flickers intriguingly between friendship and sexual attraction, and Gerda makes her insecurities known to Hans even more than to Lili. As the film makes clear, Gerda loves Einar/Lili, even though she’s not sure what form that love can take.


Both Redmayne and Vikander are excellent in their roles here. Redmayne avoids any overt campiness in the role and eases gradually into the transition, learning (with Gerda’s help) how to act like a woman in public. As the film progresses, Redmayne’s character shows more confidence, as Lili learns how to act like a woman, albeit one who becomes increasingly demure and withdrawn as the film goes on. Vikander actually has the showier emotional, if not physical, role. The fact that the movie doesn’t give audiences enough of a look into her psyche doesn’t take away from the job she does in showing what director Hooper allows.


And that is the problem with the movie. Hooper and Coxon have worked hard to create an accurate picture of life some 100 years ago, with the aid of near perfect period costuming and production design. But the characters feej that distant as well. Lili and Gerda seem more like models in a vintage snapshot than real people. The lack of depth makes some of the relationships in the movie almost impossible to fathom, such as that between Lili and Henrik (Ben Whishaw), a young gay man who flirts with her at her first public outing.


One thing The Danish Girl makes perfectly clear is the reaction of the medical establishment to Lili. When she goes for treatment, she is diagnosed as schizophrenic or worse, and all the doctors recommend barbaric treatments such as radiation therapy, presumably to burn out any trace of feminine feelings. She barely escapes being institutionalized before discovering the one doctor who offered the hope of allowing her to live her life as she wanted.


The Danish Girl, like many stories of transgender people, ends in tragedy (although Hooper does put as positive a spin on it as possible, painting Lili as a pioneer), The movie itself, though, ends in a bit of disappointment. The most memorable aspect of the film is its period look, and, after two hours, we learn little more about the characters than could have been gleaned from studying Wikipedia pages. Despite two excellent lead performances, the best that can be said about the movie is that it is an admirably staged period piece.

Read other reviews of The Danish Girl:


The Danish Girl (2015) on IMDb