Review: ‘The Danish Girl’ Might Have Been Okay Ten Years Ago, But It’s Terrible Today

Trans stories deserve better than this.

The Danish Girl is an ambiguous title. Sure, one may naturally assume that the title of Tom Hooper’s latest film refers to Lili Elbe, the famous Danish painter who lived as Einar before becoming the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the early 20th century. It’s a knowing wink to audiences who see star Eddie Redmayne’s face on the poster adorned in lipstick and mascara. Yet as this starched and stuffy film goes on, it becomes glaringly obvious that it’s made by a filmmaker who identifies more with the struggle of Lili’s wife, Gerda — a character who is even identified at one point as “some Danish girl”.

And therein lies at least part of the problem with The Danish Girl. That Lili, a trans pioneer who fought to live as her true self and was allowed to do so for only the most fleeting of moments, ultimately becomes a secondary character in what has been marketed and sold as her own story is terribly disappointing. It’s somewhat akin to Dallas Buyers Club — another film dealing with very queer subject matter that nonetheless was more interested in a straight protagonist.

This is indicative, however, of a film that belongs to another era entirely. An era before issues surrounding transgender men and women were as openly discussed with such nuance and when its immaculately tailored prestige aesthetics would have been more in vogue with both audiences and the Oscar voters that it so desperately wants to impress.

The Evolution Of Trans Storytelling

The Danish Girl’s inception as a film began over a decade ago. Originally written in 2004 as the gay romance of Brokeback Mountain (2005) was about to break into the multiplex and Transamerica was about to give the trans community a jolt of mainstream attention thanks to the Oscar-nominated performance of Felicity Huffman (who was at the time also a star of one of the world’s most watched television series, Desperate Housewives). With the unorthodox choice of Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson to direct and the unarguably daring Nicole Kidman to star, it’s hard not to question things when screenwriter Lucinda Coxon claims the project fell through because “the subject matter was considered marginal”. Rather, I would be more likely to believe that her soft lob of a script for such an important issue was at odds with Alfredson and Kidman’s more artistically-minded practices.

While that’s all hypothetical, it’s hard not to see the long gestation period of the project as having had a detrimental effect on its impact. Ten years ago this genteel treatment of trans issues would have likely been received far better as an audience-friendly take on an issue that had found its way onto the fringes of arthouse cinema, but was approaching the tipping point of media interest. But in 2016 we have Transparent, Sense8, and Orange in the New Black confronting trans issues on television head on with sensitivity and complexity, while Laurence Anyways, Tangerine and 52 Tuesdays have brought a bolt of electricity to cinematic portrayals (and in the case of the latter two, did it with transgender actors too!). And despite whatever personal opinions you may hold on Caitlyn Jenner, the positive reaction by the press and public to her transition would have been inconceivable ten years ago.

Sadly, The Danish Girl screenplay didn’t move with the times and instead ultimately comes off as hollow and stale. It’s fitting then that Tom Hooper, a man who never left a film set without adorning it with dozens of cushions, tasseled lampshades, and the scent of a musky attic, took over the project and over-designed it to the point of suffocation. After John Adams (2008), The King’s Speech (2010), and Les Miserables (2012), Hooper’s style of polite prestige is well-worn, but The Danish Girl is a film of such excessively refined good taste that it is sapped of everything that might have made it interesting.

Boring Oscar-Baiting 101

Of course, what would have been interesting — what would have truly set it apart from the litany of period costume dramas angling for award season attention — would have been to actually cast somebody with the inherent knowledge of the struggles of being transgender. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory that casting heterosexual cisgender actors in transgender roles is inherently wrong or offensive, but The Danish Girl is in dire need of energy to raise it up from the dregs of its obvious, pandering Oscar-bait trappings. That this movie has been met with apathy by critics and award bodies is hardly surprising given how adamantly it adheres to the Important Issue Movie blueprint. Going out on a limb in casting would have given it a necessarily pulse, not least of all because it is important to see minorities given the chance to flourish telling their own stories. We will never have a bankable trans actor unless filmmakers are willing to give them major roles in films.

A transgender actor would have brought immeasurable amounts of internal power to a role that is otherwise two-dimensional and vacant in a film that seems to find new ways to insult trans viewers time and time again. What may have worked in the bestselling prose of David Ebershoff’s novel simply doesn’t translate to the visual medium where the internal thoughts and struggles of Lili are replaced by countless scenes wherein her life as a woman is reduced to trying on wigs and gowns. Scene after scene shows Lili glancing at women across rooms or out windows and adopting their mannerisms — the bat of one’s eyelids, the stroke of a cheek, the sway of her hips while walking down the street — in much the same way Redmayne likely did when getting into character. These may have been very real aspects of Lili Elbe’s life, but in The Danish Girl they are all there is, and there’s no depth to any of it. It’s all surface-level artifice.

A film version of The Danish Girl was always going to struggle, but it fumbles the ball in almost every respect beyond the pretty costumes and Alicia Vikander’s performance (what she is “supporting” we’ll never know — is she keeping the sets standing upright? — but she seems a shoo-in for the Oscar). It is a movie that’s banking on audiences that have heard a thing or two about “that whole transgender thing” and will be seduced by the frou frou. Queer audiences, particularly transgender men and women, are likely to be left cold. That we never really glean who “the Danish girl” is is quite fitting since the filmmakers also haven’t the slightest idea who their characters really are.

The Danish Girl is in cinemas now.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much @glenndunks.