Of all the adjectives to describe a movie, “well-intentioned” is among the least scintillating and most wearying. It’s why a lot of people have an aversion to so-called Oscar-bait— they’re the kind of films that pop up around award season to address important subjects in a respectful way, with the hopes of raising awareness and ...well ...just explaining that type of movie is enough to put you to sleep. You know them when you see them—tasteful, a bit detached, perhaps wearing the story’s morality with a touch of false modesty. Even if the filmmakers approach them without a hint of cynicism, it’s hard to go into them as a viewer without a little side-eye. We don’t resist the movie’s intentions or its subject matter; we resist its suffocating nobility and earnestness.
A movie like The Danish Girl will fall into this category for many viewers (and more than a few critics), but if you can get past its porcelain surface, there’s a thoughtful, emotional film right there underneath. Part of this drama’s hushed sincerity, I suspect, stems from the fact that this is a story about a transgender character going through gender confirmation surgery, and that the movie is made by cisgender actors and filmmakers. Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and especially Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) are approaching delicate material as compassionate outsiders, and despite the care, heart and craft they put into The Danish Girl, that polite distance never really leaves the film. Their concern about wanting to tell this story the “right” way—or, perhaps most importantly, their fear about doing it “wrong”—leaves The Danish Girl muted, hiding behind its air of awards-season prestige.
The film tells the true story of Lili Elbe (Redmayne), a painter married to fellow painter Gerda (Alicia Vikander) in Copenhagen in 1926. At the time, Lili lived as Einar Wegener, a man, but over time the acclaimed artist began to acknowledge a truth deep within. Lili Elbe begins life as a female alter ego that the married couple dream up for Einar, but soon becomes the personality that Einar prefers. Slowly, Lili realizes that “Einar” is not her true self, which began her journey into uncharted territory for the times (at least, one that wasn’t publicly discussed). It won’t surprise you to learn that when Lili Elbe became one of the first to ever undergo gender confirmation surgery—having her penis removed and a vagina constructed— transgender people were considered to be abnormal, or to have a “condition” that was thought to be the result of a chemical deficiency or just plain ol’ craziness.
The Danish Girl chronicles Lili’s path to finding a doctor, any doctor, who would take her seriously in lieu of dubbing her unstable and having her “cured.” Redmayne plays Lili with the utmost empathy, and what’s strongest about the performance is his ability to show how she herself struggled with her identity. We see Lili’s baby steps toward transition—first wearing some of Gerda’s stockings in private, then daring to go out in makeup and dress as Lili—and each new development scares the painter because she’s been long-conditioned to believe that there’s something wrong with her. Before anyone else can accept Lili, she has to learn to accept herself, and Redmayne’s fragile face and perhaps too self-consciously nervous smile telegraph Lili’s easing into her authentic identity.
But it’s telling that The Danish Girl doesn’t belong so much to Redmayne as it does Vikander. As Gerda, she supports her partner’s transition while reluctantly coming to understand that Lili’s independence will mean the end of their marriage. Based on the book by David Ebershoff and written by Lucinda Coxon, The Danish Girl seeks to make transgender issues more accessible to a larger, Oscar-season audience by couching them in terms of a love story. There are compromises with such an approach as Lili starts to recede into the distance and Gerda becomes the film’s central focus, our attention shifted to how she’s processing letting go of Einar rather than observing how Lili is feeling about the profound physical and emotional transformation she’ll be undergoing. Both times I’ve seen the film, I’ve been struck by how good Vikander is, exploding the cliche of the loyal-wife trope by being a fully three-dimensional character with her own arc. (At the start of the film, Gerda is a struggling painter living in her more-famous husband’s shadow. By the end, she’s found her voice as an artist, her love for Lili coming through in every drawing and painting Gerda does of her. But that might also be an indication of The Danish Girl’s well-meaning cul-de-sac.
This is a sumptuous film, Hooper adorning 1920s Copenhagen and Paris with lovely costume design and painterly visuals, and the performances across the board are smart and nuanced. (This includes Amber Heard as a coquettish family friend, Ben Whishaw as a possible admirer of Lili, and Matthias Schoenaerts as an old classmate who develops feelings for Gerda.) But in its striving to be well-adorned and sympathetic, the movie tends to bland out a bit, assuming that an artful production is the best way to convey compassion for a subject. And so The Danish Girl isn’t so much about the struggles for transgender people to be seen—it’s about a marriage, too.
That’s a safer, more conventional way of talking about transgender rights, and it’s hard to be too critical of filmmakers tackling subject matter that hasn’t been this fully explored in a mainstream movie. Much like Brokeback Mountain, a far better film, The Danish Girl is a modest groundbreaker whose most radical element is how traditional it is. Hooper and his cast don’t just celebrate the Lilis but also the Gerdas who are the crucial support systems for those facing intolerance. A bolder, livelier film like Tangerine—which doesn’t have an ounce of contrived prestige to it—speaks to viewers who don’t need their hand held about transgender issues. The Danish Girl will inevitably lay some groundwork for tolerance among those who need a little award-season tastefulness to embrace social progress—and we’ll take it.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.