“It doesn’t matter what I wear. It’s what I dream. They’re Lili’s dreams.”
The Danish Girl is a film of visuals. Stripped back to nakedness, it opens with a landscape of leafless branches, a decaying sign of life left in the empty exposure of the Danish countryside. Wind is the only thing that disturbs the infertile isolation. It is a metaphor, conveying what dialogue cannot: Lili Elbe.
The story is of two people, all others rendered mere emotional crutches instead of characters with any emotive substance in themselves. Einar Wegner is not the focus. Instead, the attention falls on Gerda and her devolving relationship with Lili, the woman she calls her husband. The script itself becomes disengaging because of this. The four other notable parts are used as props, plot-devices instead of personalities, and this lack of connection conflicts with the emotional intensity of Lili’s battle between her and her body; the shell she reduces to a physical disease. There is an unlikable selfishness to it, one which we witnessed in Redmayne’s performance in The Theory of Everything. The context becomes unimportant and the plight of the protagonist is, ironically, stuck as a result, jaded also by its two-hour cut-and-paste running time. It is an adaptation that could have been utilised more effectively in a biopic-series, one drawing from the other characters and the story surrounding, and not just of, Lili Elbe. The Danish Girl is thus reduced to a weak portrayal of arguably the first martyr of the transgender cause, precisely because of its selfish scope.
This is not the fault of the actors. Alicia Vikander plays the breathless, frustrated erotic painter with a blasé bravado, her flirtations and schemes drawing Redmayne’s bashful, shy, almost reclusive, Einar into an opulent world of bohemian renaissance. This scene-setting at the beginning is the only pace-perfect part of its running time, fitting succinctly into the patient, toe-dipping gentleness of Einar’s character: it is delicate, the way Gerda slowly draws out the gestating Lili from the confines of Einar’s body through the power of her art, the visuals. When Einar has to pose for his wife so she can complete a painting, the close-shots of the stockings – their wafer-thin textures, pastel colours, sculpting sensuality – awes Einar. He caresses their beautiful fragility, as if a precious new born. It is the birth of Lili we are witnessing, or rather, the liberation of her.
A game to Gerda, she doesn’t realise how serious Einar’s ‘alter-ego’ is to him. Her struggle is where the characterisation falls apart. Ulla, played by Amber Heard, feisty and fun, no longer fits into the seriousness of Lili’s transformation, and so she is discarded, despite being a close friend of the couple. Similarly the introduction of Hans is, at best, random. An old friend of Einar, he is legitimised when Gerda asks him to represent her husband’s work, but once it is established that art was Einar’s passion and not Lili’s, he becomes a dead-weight, someone who is there to offer Gerda support, but little else. Could Ulla not have done this? It is my belief that this was a poor attempt to create a romantic complication for the film, but as this is never realised, makes it utterly pointless, inconsistent, and demonstrates poor script-writing.
This is the root reason for The Danish Girl being a visual feast and nothing more. Hindered by its own dialogue, the film requires Redmayne and Vikander to buttress the emotional isolation of the two protagonists through their understated physical delivery, which the cinematography and vulnerable subtle scenery support.
The gender politics, or rather, gender construct in this film is the only saving grace of the screenplay. By making Lili a separate entity from Einar, the only similarity they share being their body, the film grounds identity not in the physical, but in the feeling, and by doing so firmly separates the two characters warring within a male-sexed form. It also legitimises the contrast between the gentle pace at the beginning and the comparatively impatient pace at the end: Einar was the floundering one, whereas Lili is determined. They are two different people. Gender is not constrained to the body we are born with, or the supposed chemical imbalance that can be physically ‘fixed.’ It is about spirit, not substance. The exploration of this is screenwriter Coxon’s only triumph.
The Danish Girl is a film with potential, but once deconstructed reveals poor plot-points, random characterisation, and a jarred pace. It is a script just salvaged by the talents of the actors, set-designers and Copenhagen’s authentic and understated setting.