When an acclaimed artist suddenly realizes he must live his life as a woman, what impact will this have on his marriage?
In Copenhagen’s society of 1926, artist Einar Wegener (Redmayne) was considered a renowned painter of landscapes. Unfortunately, his wife Gerda (Vikander), also a painter, has gone virtually unrecognized for her portraits. One day, when she’s trying to finish a painting of a woman, the model fails to show up. As a result, she asks her husband if he would stand-in so she can complete her painting. He consents, but when she asks him to wear some of the clothes her model wore when she originally posed, this awakens something in him and he starts dressing as a woman with increasing frequency.
At first, Gerda is amused by this and together, they engage in a playful game; having shopped for clothes that would fit her husband, she dresses him and they go in public to see how many people they can fool. Gerda introduces her companion as Lily, Einar’s cousin, who is visiting. Their plan works a little too well as some men start flirting with “Lily”, who’s so flattered by the attention “she” encourages the romantic interests, disturbing Gerda immensely. Nevertheless, Gerda is suddenly inspired and starts to paint portraits of “Lily” which are held in such high regard that galleries compete to show her work, which is soon on display in Paris.
But as Gerda has found her muse, she’s lost her husband. Einar comes to the conclusion that he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body and seeks assistance from physicians; unfortunately, they all come to the same conclusion: he’s insane and should be institutionalized. Ultimately, they find a surgeon from Dresden who believes he can assist: he offers to perform an as-yet untested sex-change operation on Einar. Because there is little medical experience with this, it’s risky and must be done in stages: first, removal of Einar’s male genitalia – later, he’ll construct female genitalia so Einar can complete the physical transformation to Lily. Considering the danger, will Einar undergo the surgery and if he does, will he survive?
“The Danish Girl” is a true story based in part on Lily’s memoirs as well as the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff. Despite Redmayne’s convincing portrayal of a woman (uncomfortably so, at times), this feels like something of a creepshow. There is a redeeming quality about the movie with respect to the close relationship Einar maintained with Gerda as the transition to Lily progressed. However, this is not enough to emotionally draw in viewers to the story; while Einar/Lily and Gerda have a fascinating tale, it’s a bit slow-moving at times, causing “The Danish Girl” to give the impression it’s much longer than its two hours.
Where “The Danish Girl” gets more absorbing is when it touches on Gerda’s reaction to her husband’s metamorphosis. It briefly alludes to her sense of loneliness and how physical intimacy has become absent in her life by suggesting a possible romantic entanglement with an old friend of Einar’s. The movie would have been substantially more intriguing if it had told the story through Gerda’s eyes, especially since she was the artist whose work flourished to the detriment of her marriage. “The Danish Girl” seems to start out being their story, then his story, then her story. Ultimately, it feels like the story of no one in particular.
Undeniably, there is a great degree of timeliness in this movie, given that transgender members of our society have recently gained increasing visibility and awareness. The qualities that go into the making of a good film are often mysterious at best; why certain things that should theoretically work don’t work in practice is nothing short of confounding. Therein lie the problems with “The Danish Girl”; on the surface, it appears to be doing everything right but the puzzle that is constructed at the end is nowhere near as compelling as each of its individual pieces.