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.