‘The Danish Girl’ is awards-bait but not brilliant

Alicia Vikander in 'The Danish Girl'
Alicia Vikander in ‘The Danish Girl’

Quick, ask yourself a question.  Before Bruce Jenner made the transition to being Caitlyn Jenner, who was the most famous transgender person you knew of.  Chaz Bono?  Renee Richards?  Lana Wachowski?  Jan Morris?  Christine Jorgensen?  Before any of these people, there was a man named Einar Wegener (Redmayne).  He was a landscape artist married to Gerda Wegener (Vikander) who was a portrait painter.  The Danish Girl is the story of this couple and how Einar transitioned, becoming one of the very first men to undergo what was known then as sexual reassignment surgery to become Lili Elbe.

We are first introduced to the potential existence of Lili within Einar when Gerda needs the assistance of her husband to finish a portrait.  She asks him to don the stockings and shoes of “Ulla” (Heard) and to hold the dress she wore for the painting against his body as she finishes up.  When Ulla walks in unexpectedly, she names him “Lili.”

Soon Gerda is painting Lili’s face with makeup and ultimately they decide that Lili will accompany Gerda to a party that Einar refused to attend.  This creates complications when Gerda sees Lili enjoying a stolen moment with Henrik (Whishaw).  Afterward she asks, in fact demands that Einar stop dressing as Lili but it is too late.  The woman inside has come to the fore and has no intention of retreating inside of the very conflicted Einar.

They seek help from a physician who claims to specialize in such disorders but he concludes that his patient is insane rather than transgendered (a term that did not even exist until decades later) and wants to institutionalize him.  But Gerda, having become a success as a portrait painter once she began to use Lili as a model forces Einar to go with her to Paris to avoid him being locked up.

Matthias Schoenaerts in 'The Danish Girl'
Matthias Schoenaerts in ‘The Danish Girl’

In Paris she looks up Hans Axgil (Schoenearts), a childhood friend of Einars, who is a famed art dealer.  Not to represent her works, but to try to help in dealing with her husband and his growing insistence that he is Lili and needs to leave Einar behind.  Einar tries more doctors but with similar results as the one he went to in Copenhagen.  Gerda convinces Einar to try one last doctor.  Professor Warnekros (Koch) not only believe that Einar is a woman wrongly born into a male body, but is willing to perform the extremely risky series of operations to make Einar as fully female as possible.

This is a compelling tale but because director Tom Hooper made a film seeking recognition by those who make awards rather than to please the audience, it isn’t nearly as interesting as it might have been.  Worse yet, the score by Alexandre Desplat frequently overwhelms the visuals on the screen.  Film scores should enhance the emotional content, not reduce them by overpowering the moment.

The two leads are wonderful.  Redmayne’s ability to transform, already rewarded with an acting Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, is nothing short of magical.  Vikander, who earned raves for her work in Ex Machina earlier this year is even better in this film.  It is her emotional travails throughout this story that capture the attention of the audience.

This movie is based on a true story, which was the basis for the novel upon which it is based.  Sources claim that the medical records of Lili’s surgeries and all other record of the Professor were destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.  If you want to know more about the true story, check out the book Man Into Woman: The First Sex Change, which was written in 1933.

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