On paper, The Danish Girl has everything going for it: a sensationalist plot with real-life characters, weighty and timely subject matter, pretty scenery, nifty period clothes, a love story, and a nice dose of tragedy. Visually, it’s a beautiful film: cinematographer Danny Cohen gives it the soft, muted look of an impressionist painting; the interiors are as alluring as the exterior shots. The setting—the early 20th Century art scene in Copenhagen and Paris—evokes a sense of glamor and romance. The acting is okay for the most part, but Alicia Vikander is outstanding. Still, the sum here is no greater than its parts.
Based on David Ebershoff’s novel based on the life of Dutch artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), the first known person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and his wife, Gerda Gottlieb (Vikander), The Danish Girl is a good story even if it isn’t historically accurate. One day, Gottlieb asks Wegener to stand in for her model so she can finish a painting; she gives him a pair of panty hose, and he is immediately cozy in them. Thus begins Wegener’s road to becoming “Lili,” as christened by the couple’s friend, Ulla (Amber Heard). Lili becomes Gottlieb’s muse, showing up in her paintings. They sell. Lili accompanies Gottlieb to a ball as Wegener’s “cousin,” and everyone is fooled. Wasn’t that easy, isn’t she pretty in pink?
The Danish Girl is fictionalized, and as a result liberties are taken for time constraints, continuity, and drama. I get that. Nonetheless, this film doesn’t come off as genuine because it oversimplifies and sanitizes the issues it seems to want to bring to light and then gives them superficial treatment. Lili’s transition is too quick, and her adjustment—touched on but not explored—is seamless for today let alone 1926. Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili is silly: he bats his eyelashes and caresses his frocks with all the campy drama Johnny Depp mustered up wearing an angora sweater in Ed Wood. Lili looks like Molly Ringwald, right down to her stylish scarves—the real Lili looked like Oscar Wilde in a dress. Wegener and Gottlieb were more complicated and had a more complex and unconventional relationship. The truth here is so condensed and whitewashed that this might as well be a fairy tale.
The Danish Girl might make you cry, but it’s just not convincing even within the confines of a two-hour film. Too bad, because it could’ve been much more.