“The Danish Girl” is a beautiful movie with some disappointing omissions

The Danish Girl was never going to be just another movie. With people already hailing it the Brokeback Mountain of the trans community, and the hype around it being Eddie Redmayne’s first big role since winning the Oscar for The Theory of Everything, expectations were heavy. In all of that, it’s easy to overlook the expectations of the queer women’s community. If you didn’t know you should have expected some pretty clear lesbian undertones from the film, that’s because the rumors that Gerda Gottlieb Wegener (played by Alicia Vikander) was a lesbian and the fact that many of her art pieces played up attractions between women, well, that wasn’t really promoted. And it didn’t really make it to the screen either.

Let me be clear–I’m not saying The Danish Girl wasn’t a great film. I’m just stating upfront some of what’s problematic with the movie so that we can move on to what is good about it.

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The film opens up in beautiful Copenhagen in 1926. After some idyllic scenery shots, we’re introduced to Gerda and her fellow artist and husband, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne). Immediately you can tell how we’re supposed to find Eddie believable as Lili later on in the film. He’s so sensually soft–in appearance, voice, and mannerisms. While I too am of the belief that we need to see more trans actors taking on such roles, I have to say that, as far as alternatives go, Eddie Redmayne is a brilliant choice.

Gerda and Einar have a very strong relationship, stemming from the fact that they see each other as equals, both as artists and partners, even if the world doesn’t. Note that I’m choosing to use the name Einar, as at this point in the movie not even Lili knows that Lili existsand neither does Gerda.

The couple met while attending the same college and married relatively young (by today’s standards at least). Early in the film Gerda describes kissing Einar for the first time, and that it was, “like kissing myself.” It struck me as interesting how in that one statement she has both described her husband’s femininity as well as her own possible attraction to women. It’s one of the few instances of the latter in the film, and one that I hope was deliberate.

It’s Gerda who helps bring Lili out, though of course she was always there. It all starts with a favorGerda had asked Einar to put on some stockings and women’s shoes while holding up a dress so that she could put in the finishing touches on a painting. A somewhat reluctant Einar agreed, and with that Gerda’s muse and Lili herself come to be all at once.

Then came the moment to show Lili off to the world for the first time. Gerda convinces her husband to come to one of those dreadfully posh art balls by making a game out of it: show up as Einar’s cousin Lili and make it believable. What Gerda doesn’t realize is that Lili is already effectively out and, as such, this proposal is absolutely enticing for her.

Fully decked out for the first time, Lili is stunning; picturesque. I have the sense that even the same moviegoers who chuckled during this scene thought so too. It was no roomful of laughs, not by any means, but watching a movie like this outside of the LGBT festival circuit certainly provides some insightful observations.

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Back at the ball Lili meets Henrik. Far too quickly, Henrik seems enamored. Just as quickly (startlingly so), Lili agrees to go off with him, and then Gerda spots them kissing. It’s not so much about Henrik’s being a man, thoughit’s about Henrik, unlike her wife, only knowing Lili as Lili, and his being attracted to her as her true self.

It’s a pivotal moment. After this, life as “Einar” becomes an impossible lie to keep up. Surely to be one, if not the, most talked about moments in the movie is when Lili strips off “Einar’s” clothing in a rush and, now naked, tucks in her penis. The scene hits you full on and marks a turning point in the film.

There’s a lot of secrecy going on. Since witnessing Lili’s encounter with Henrik, Gerda has been anti-Lili, meaning Lili can’t be herself in Gerda’s presence. All the hiding has made Lili physically ill, resulting in a visit to a specialist with her wife. This so-called specialist identifies an imbalance in Lili, which has probably caused infertility (the couple had been trying to get pregnant) and explains her identity issues. The proposed solution? Radiation treatment. It’s completely needless, and Gerda’s insistence that Lili go through with it is one of her lowest moments in the film.

Naturally the treatment does nothing to “cure” Lili. All that’s come of it is a letter accusing Lili of “perversion” and outlining the need to lock her up. Fortunately Gerda had just received an invitation to work out of Paris (thanks to the success of her Lili paintings) and the couple is able to move. But the city of love doesn’t fix their problems. Gerda continues to not fully accept Lili, and Lili continues to pull away and get more and more depressed. She tries her hand at doing her own research, but, unsurprisingly, texts available during that era are not helpful. Neither are the several useless doctors she visited. The hate crime she suffers while walking alone in broad daylight just cements itsomething has gotta give.

In the face of all this Gerda finally changes her tune. She asks if Lili wants to try one more doctor–Dr. Warnekros out of Dresden, Germany. Not only is he understanding, he wants to make Lili one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery. It’s incredibly risky and Gerda is reasonably worried, but Lili’s made up her mind: “It’s my only hope.”

The Danish Girl is as beautiful a film as the art it upholds. It’s as much about Lili’s personal journey as it is about her relationship with the also incredible Gerda. It is indeed a slow build, and while I do have concerns about Gerda’s portrayal at times and what we didn’t see or hear in regards to her, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s Oscar talk for Eddie and Alicia. Their performances were perfectly vulnerable and strong when the moment called for either, or both. As well, an honorable mention should go to out actress Amber Heard for her small role in the film–she certainly made the most of what little screen time she had.

It will be interesting to see what kind of impact this film will have over the coming months. Certainly its box office and critical success (or potential lack thereof) will influence how many more films like it we’ll see made in the coming years. For that reason, and because I do think this is a special film, I hope the hype around The Danish Girl literally pays off.

The Danish Girl had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, and will be showing again at the festival on September 19. The film is scheduled for limited release on November 27.