A while back, I put forward the notion that cinematic statements about homosexuality have pretty much lost their novelty and relevance over the past year. At this point, it seems like we have a pretty good handle on what homosexuality is and how it works, and the mainstream has more or less come to the agreement that persecution against gay people is unacceptable. So now it’s time to move on to the next frontier: Transgenders.
What are transgenders? Where do they come from? Why would anyone choose to be a transgender, or is it even a matter of choice? What is life like as a transgender? What is romance like as a transgender? These are all important questions, and still quite bold ones to ask in a mainstream culture that is still deeply entrenched in a strictly binary male/female attitude toward sexuality.
Granted, we’ve had movies about trans issues before. An especially prominent example is the Oscar-nominated Transamerica, and that was a solid decade ago. But right now, gay marriage has become the law of the land with overwhelming popular support, the sex change of Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner was made into headline news, Jeffrey Tambor won a Golden Globe for portraying a transgendered character on a web series going on its third season, and there’s already controversy brewing about a transgendered character in the upcoming Zoolander No. 2. Clearly, the time is ripe for mainstream entertainment to start talking about trans issues in greater depth.
So here we are with The Danish Girl, a film loosely based on the life of Lili Elbe (formerly Einar Wegener), one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery. It comes to us from Tom Hooper, who fluked his way to a Best Director award when Black Swan and The Social Network split the vote. This is the same Tom Hooper who utterly mangled Les Miserables by shooting every one of his miscast actors in extreme close-up from start to finish. Speaking of which, the film stars Les Mis alumnus Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar and gave a Razzie-nominated performance within the same month.
Yet of the two, only Redmayne has been awarded a second Oscar nomination so far. Curious.
At this point, based on what I’ve seen of Redmayne’s works, I’ve come to the conclusion that he is only as good as the material he’s given. When he’s given a thick and meaty role with so much to sink his teeth into (The Theory of Everything), he’s nothing short of spectacular. When his character is a two-dimensional bland little nothing (Les Miserables, My Week with Marilyn), he blends right into the wallpaper. And when his character is aggressively wretched (Jupiter Ascending), Redmayne will somehow find a way to make it a million times worse. There are some incredibly gifted actors who can elevate their material and bring depth to a role where none previously existed, but Eddie Redmayne ain’t one of them.
As you may have guessed, Redmayne’s role here is much closer to Hawking than Abrasax. The whole movie is about Einar’s transition into Lili, as Einar starts discovering certain feminine proclivities that he can’t seem to live without. He starts out with a kind of cross-dressing fetish, then he finds so much confidence and beauty in acting like a woman, and he eventually gets so addicted to that rush that he can’t live without it. He’s gone so far deep into character that he can’t get back out again, though Einar talks as if he was simply giving a voice to something that was inside him all along.
It’s a fascinating transformation that does a lot to exemplify what it’s like going through this wonderful and peculiar change. It’s so very hard to describe in words, yet Redmayne gives such a fearless performance that he describes it with raw emotion and body language perfectly well. Very beautifully done.
That said, Redmayne still gets outclassed by his fellow Oscar nominee, Alicia Vikander. She plays Einar’s wife, and the two of them share in the story so evenly that the title could just as easily refer to either one of them. It’s abundantly obvious that Einar and Gerda love each other dearly, yet it’s also just as obvious that Einar’s transition is going forward beyond anyone’s control. So the two of them have to figure out how to support each other moving forward, what their new relationship will look like (assuming a new relationship is even possible), and how to let go of the wonderful status quo they used to have before. Then again, there’s always the question of whether Gerda married a husband who’s going away forever, or if she’s been married to a woman this whole time and never knew it until now.
That said, Gerda is very definitely her own character. She has her own career and welfare to look after, and she has more than enough talent and agency that she’s not completely dependent on Einar for everything. Indeed, Gerda and Einar impact each other’s development arcs in some very surprising ways. My personal favorite concerns Lili’s status as Gerda’s new muse. She paints Lili as a drop-dead gorgeous woman without any leftover masculine quirks, which further bolsters Lili’s confidence and gives Gerda some paintings to sell so they can both enjoy some much-needed income.
Vikander is effortlessly charming from start to finish. Her joy, her heartbreak, her passion, her sense of humor… positively everything about her performance is so completely infectious that it’s so much easier to buy into the central romance and emotionally invest in the outcome. Vikander has proven herself to be a bona fide superstar in three movies over the course of this year, and I sincerely hope that the Oscar nomination means we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.
(Side note: Speaking of actresses who made it out of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. with their dignity intact, can we please give Elizabeth Debicki another shot at a career? She’s really very good, in spite of her bad career moves.)
That said, the supporting cast is kinda hit-and-miss. First up is Amber Heard, and I’m sincerely thrilled to see legitimate proof that Heard has serious acting talent. I know she’s made some bad career moves in the past, but I’ve seriously been in love with her since Drive Angry, when she brought so much depth and energy to what easily could have and probably should have been a phoned-in thankless role. She does the same here, bringing a delightful sense of fun and a very strong impression to a token “best friend” character who maybe gets fifteen minutes of screen time in total. Seriously, why the hell did we give Alice Eve a shot at a career when we already had a far more stunning blonde who actually had some hint at talent and charisma?!
Elsewhere in the supporting cast, we have Matthias Schoenaerts, who continues to show less acting range and screen presence than a cut-rate Fabio impersonator. It breaks my heart to remember that he was so good in The Drop. But then came A Little Chaos and Far From the Madding Crowd (2015) and what the hell happened?! Ben Whishaw also barely deserves mention, grossly misused as a young man who may or may not be aware that the beautiful woman he’s macking on is really a cross-dresser.
But what really costs this movie a lot of points is Tom Hooper and his continuing obsession with close-ups and extreme close-up shots. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the conflict in this plot is pretty much entirely internal. Despite a token scene of violence against perceived homosexuals, and even though 1920s scientific ignorance plays a huge part of the plot, the vast majority of the conflict in this movie revolves around Einar/Lili trying to balance their two aspects and everyone else around them figuring out how to adapt. I get that the extreme close-up shots help us get a more clear picture of what’s going on in the characters’ heads, and I respect that. But it’s still obnoxious as fuck, and it limits what body language might have been available to the actors if they had more than their faces to work with (see also: Les Miserables).
The Danish Girl features two spectacular lead performances, and I absolutely believe that this film wasn’t made purely for Oscar buzz. This feels like an important and relevant story, and the filmmakers seem genuinely interested in conveying the message about trans acceptance. Unfortunately, Tom Hooper’s overly blunt sensibilities led to a film that drastically oversold the social relevance and inner turmoil, resulting in a film that’s way too sappy and melodramatic for its own good. If the film had stronger supporting characters, some halfway decent camerawork, and a score that didn’t sound aggressively bland, it might potentially have been really great instead of merely “not bad”.
Luckily, it’s not like we ever needed this film to be the end-all be-all cinematic discussion of transsexual issues, people, and stories. If nothing else, this is a very solid foundation for future movies to build from. For example, there’s Dr. Kurt Warnekros, the doctor who actually performed the first sexual realignment surgery (here played by Sebastian Koch). Here’s a man who openly defied every medical authority in the world to try and help transsexual men instead of labeling them as dangerously insane, lobotomizing them, frying their gonads with radiation, etc. Just imagine the first guy who tried coming up with a practical way of removing the male genitalia and replacing them with female genitalia, doing it for the sincere and genuine purpose of helping confused individuals with nowhere else to turn, certain of the knowledge that his tenuous reputation may be forever ruined in the likely event that a willing participant died under his knife.
I don’t know about you, but personally, I want to know this guy’s story. And I sincerely hope that someone puts it to film sooner than later.