The Danish Girl (2015) Film Review
A popular statement in film critique is to bracket certain films as "star vehicles," pertaining to when the film itself offers little other than to showcase its monstrous talent at the fore. The irony here is that Eddie Redmayne certainly stars, but this is Alicia Vikander's film.
And I wouldn't go so far as to dub this film as such, given that it is, for two acts at least, a beautifully constructed, wonderfully presented narrative that lays its foundation on such a heart warming (and eventually heart-wrenching) relationship. In its final act, though, it loses something. With the death of a beautiful relationship, the film grows cold, and ends that way, lacking any sort of transformative revelation for its viewers in its wake.
The Danish Girl chronicles the first ever sex change operation, born from artist Einar Wegener's detachment from her body, which feels alien to her. But ultimately, it is Einar's partner, Gerda, played with such a sweetness but also an honourable strength by Alicia Vikander, who commands this story. The only problem being, of course, is that she's left behind by the close of the second act, and maybe even before that. The relationship that's crafted from the beginning is one of pure love and artistry, a complete collaboration between two people who genuinely feel as though they belong together.
So when Einar begins to embrace a side that she never truly considered, Gerda is untroubled, and at times even a little turned on by it. When they dress Einar up for a game before attending an exhibit as girlfriends rather than husband and wife, something drastic changes. But it isn't the events that transpire, as Einar discovers her split personality, Lili, that are quite as compelling as it is seeing Gerda react and respond.
In all personal honesty, there is a confronting experience in witnessing Einar's transformation. Her discoveries are frightening and tragic, extending to the response she receives from professionals who diagnose her as everything from homosexual to schizophrenic. As we're allowed behind the curtain to witness her very personal trauma, it's a different kind of trauma than we've experienced on the screen. If a story such as this needed to be told, now is the right time. And witnessing these events certainly adds a layer of perspective, diminishing ignorance to shed light on a very real thing in our world.
But once that subsides, it returns to Gerda, whose life is turned upside down in such a commendable way - commendable in the way that she handles it. Director Tom Hooper is not interested in simply telling Einar's story. Instead, he wanted to show that those around her are just as tortured by the experience. In its third act coldness, Einar's transformation into Lili leaves Gerda behind, abandoning that love the two shared. This felt much like a betrayal, but Lili's flaws as a character become evident in this latter part.
As a character, Einar's discomfort in her own body is shown through nuanced moments we can attest to Redmayne's ability to handle complex individuals and portray them appropriately (The Theory of Everything). But Lili's abandonment of Gerda as her partner in life felt both cruel and indistinct, given that Einar's love for Gerda was (or felt) utterly paramount. And unfortunately the result of Gerda's emotional needs led her into the arms of Einar's childhood friend, Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), a cliche perhaps for a reason but a predictable development ultimately.
As a period drama, it's a gorgeous, lavish film, gorging on beauty and relishing the environments that two rather upper class socialites get to mingle within. There's beauty and symbolism in almost every sequence where Alexander Desplat's musical score gets to soar. In one, Einar mimics the woman in the brothel as he watches through the glass, and the two become entangled in a kind of dance, though the wall is a divide that cannot, yet, be overcome. Then there are sequences such as when Gerda and Lili are lying in their bed, with a sheet splitting them apart down the middle, a rather lacking visual cue as to where both characters are emotionally and physically.
The film is crafted like a fairytale, with streets of yellow houses and dark, almost romantically-lit alleyways. Many of the significant moments throughout are told through visuals and music, and the unraveling narrative has a spark of mystery and curiosity about it, a kind of warped and mature spin on the classic fairytale of old. This comes complete with dances and dressy events and powerful men, princes and princesses in very grounded ways. The film finds those that are willing to accept the way Lili is almost as frequently as it does those that do not understand. When Hans walks in to find Lili, not Einar, it portrays the protagonist as almost as crazy as every professional truly believes. It turns perspective frequently in an effort to give us both sides of the coin, but it always knows which side is the right one.
In the final act, it becomes Lili's story entirely, and Gerda is essentially left behind. The two become alien to one another, even as Gerda gives her all to support the person she loves. It's this refusal to return that love (involuntarily, but still a refusal) that tears the emotion away from every scene they share. There's an imbalance that results in a tribute that surprisingly fails to resonate, as Gerda's curse is her inability to ever let go. As a character, Hans never feels very important, almost more of a placeholder, filling a necessary role and having little to contribute apart from his history with Einar (which is, of course, significant in its own right; it's perhaps the one facet of Einar's true self that appeared prior to the events of the film, but it isn't much explored).
The Danish Girl is a stunning film, beautifully acted and carefully plotted. So careful is it, that Hooper may have played it safe, holding the rope and following the rules in telling a story that was, for its time period, breaking all of them. In playing it safe, the film suffers, but for two thirds of its run time, it is a moving, emotionally gifted tale. Unfortunately, it fails to see just where its strengths are, or maybe it just failed to strengthen its most important element. For that, its finale is disappointingly distant, and yet admirable all the same.