Tom Hooper’s Controversial ‘The Danish Girl’ Struggles to Balance Storytelling and Responsibility

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TORONTO: Much of director Tom Hooper’s recent work can be defined by its interplay of the personal and the political. The Oscar-winning The King’s Speech showed how King George VI’s personal disability — a crippling stutter — informed England’s decision to enter World War II. His follow-up Les Misérables interwove the loves and losses of a dozen characters into an historical tale of income inequality and revolution.

The Danish Girl exists in the same space, but its politics enter from the outside. The film details the transformation of Einar Wegenar, a successful Danish landscape painter, into Lili (Eddie Redmayne) through the world’s first gender reassignment surgery, but it does not overtly tie Lili’s journey to any larger movement. Indeed, no such movement for the rights of trans individuals existed at the time — the film is set in the 1920s — nor did the word “trans.” But it sure does now, and despite the protestations of the film’s stars and creators at the Toronto Film Festival this past weekend (each insisted they were drawn first and foremost to the story, but political filmmakers always say that), it is impossible to view The Danish Girl as simply a film and not as a social statement.

This poses a challenge for a film critic. Especially a straight, cisgender male one. But let’s give it a go.

The Danish Girl is most effective when it’s being specific about its characters, and least effective when it treats its plot as an “issue movie” checklist. The opening scenes are the strongest; Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon create a unique on-screen couple in Einar and his strong, independent wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander). Surprisingly for the era in which the film is set, the two are depicted as personal and professional equals. Both practice the same trade: painting. Einar is a successful landscape artist, and Gerda, while less commercially successful, is no less talented at her portraits. They seem deeply in love, as well as lust; in fact, one of the film’s surprises is just how damn sexy it is. Perhaps since this is a movie about the human body, neither actor has any compunction about putting themselves on display.

One day, Gerda needs to finish a portrait, but her model is absent, so Einar sits in her place, wearing stockings, shoes, and a luxurious white dress. Something changes in him that day, and something changes in the film, too. As he begins to explore his new feelings, the ground beneath the film’s feet starts to crumble. It’s not that the filmmakers get anything wrong, exactly (and who am I to say what’s wrong?), but when The Danish Girl embarks on this very intimate emotional and physical journey, it’s hard to rid one’s mind of the fact that no trans filmmakers were operating behind or in front of the camera, especially during a few particularly sensitive scenes. Hooper and Redmayne are clearly committed to making Lili a person and not an object of the cisgender gaze, but the film works so hard to understand and respect Lili that it is never able to just let her exist.

Even so, the film is sensitive to today’s struggles in important ways. As Einar starts to realize the full scope of his feelings, Gerda — a perfect model of love and support, and a purposeful audience surrogate — takes him to see a series of doctors. One recommends lobotomy, while another labels him a schizophrenic, and Einar must jump out the window to avoid being committed. Soon, they abandon the idea that he can be “cured,” and move on to other options. To the film’s great credit, it never tries to psychoanalyze him, and in fact paints all those who view his condition as some sort of affliction as monsters.

This humane and empathetic sensibility is brought to life through brilliant performances by Redmayne and Vikander. It’s easy to scoff at Redmayne’s penchant for Oscar-bait roles, but there is nothing safe about his work here. Risking both his acceptance as a leading man and criticism from the trans community, Redmayne goes around the film’s politics and loses himself in Lili. It is essentially a dual role, as he plays Einar and Lili not just as two sides of the same person, but as unique individuals with their own mannerisms and inner lives. Vikander’s challenge is just as great; on paper, her role drifts towards the dreaded “supportive wife” archetype, but she consistently seeks the emotional reality. When The Danish Girl works, it is about both characters and an ideal relationship that transcends all sense of gender.

It’s just a shame that the rest of the time, the filmmakers seem so strangled by their sense of duty. At the Q&A following its screening here in Toronto, Redmayne spoke about all the time he spent with the trans community and how it kept “raising the stakes” for the film. That’s understandable, but it’s not a great thing for creativity and originality. It’s hard to imagine the makers of this summer’s terrific Tangerine saying the same thing; they probably thought no one would see their little film (shot on an iPhone, after all), and so they imbued it with passion, intimacy, and a fierce, unique sense of humor. The Danish Girl has none of those things.

For a film, that’s a debilitating problem. But as a social statement, it’s forgivable. The Danish Girl will likely be remembered in the same class as Philadelphia, as a well-intentioned issue drama that brought a still-controversial LGBT issue to the mainstream. To do that, maybe you have to sacrifice a little originality. Tangerine, for all its victories, played to an already-enlightened crowd and probably did not shift our national debate either way. This film has bigger goals than that, but they’re not creative ones. It is not the trans film some of us want right now, but it might be the one we deserve.

The Danish Girl is playing this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in the US on November 27.