It’s taken me a while to get around to discussing The Danish Girl, in part because I was so flummoxed by it’s sheer ordinariness.
The Danish Girl, for those of you who aren’t aware, is the story of Danish artists Einar Wegener and Gerda Gottleib. Wegener was one of the first identifiable recipients of sex reassignment surgery, and died during experimental surgery to implant a womb and create a vagina. It’s an extraordinary story of love and bravery.
Some readers might expect me to be immediately critical because because The Danish Girl features a cis-male actor playing a trans-role, and perhaps because (being something of a socialist) I generally have a problem with toffs.
The latter is certainly true. I’m unhappy at the way in which Eton-educated posh boys are running both our country and our culture. Being old enough to remember when great actors went to comprehensive schools and studied drama at good polytechnics and regional universities, this is devastating news for our dramatic and cinematic arts.
As to whether trans-actors are better qualified to play trans-people, I generally agree, but in this case Redmayne is playing a man coming to terms with his gender, and deciding it’s been wrongly assigned . He’s a man playing a man and one can hardly use a second actor when the pre-op Einer Wegener becomes the post-op Lili Elbe.
But first let me tell you what I did like about The Danish Girl. The costume designer Paco Delgado and his wardrobe department have done a marvellous job (with the notable exception of Ben Whishaw’s beret, which looks like it fell onto his noggin from a very high building as he walked past).
An important part of the story revolves around clothing (and we’ll come to that later), so they simply had to get it right. The costumes are so well thought out that they command you reach out and touch. There’s an entire article on the subject here.
Sets are generally threadbare, theatrical backdrops, and are slightly unrealistic for that, but do draw you back in to the action. Costume drama often threatens to overwhelm you with awesome and majestic scenery, but that’s not the case here.
Finally, Alicia Vikander. A rather excellent, if slightly overtanned Swede, she creates what little dramatic tension exists and does it with the subtlety Redmayne lacks. She’s utterly convincing when demonstrating her love for, and commitment to, the confused Einer/Lili, as the latter comes to the razor sharp conclusion that she is female.
Redmayne’s acting skills (or lack of) are what really sinks this movie. “Film acting is, in large part, reacting and listening” said Michael Caine, who knows a thing or two about the trade, but over-reaction is Redmayne’s dramatic default.
Watch as he cradles his beautiful head in his manicured hands throughout the movie, as if he’s the most precious little rosebud in the world. I wonder if Redmayne had spent any time observing women in the real world … if he had he would have noticed that women do not spend their lives trying to give off ‘pretty’ … they eat, swear, smoke, laugh, fix cars, solve crimes, write novels, paint, fuck etc etc.
In short, women do stuff, and that’s hardly any different now than it was 100 years ago in Denmark.
Redmayne plays Lili Elbe as a woman who exists only to be looked at, when the truth is surely that Elbe was a woman of action. She put herself under the surgeon’s knife at very high risk. She was a warrior, not a mannequin.
Which brings us back to the costume. In The Danish Girl, silk and satin are gateway drugs which lead to full-scale transgenderism. It takes little more than a half-remembered male/male childhood snog, and an increasing taste for lingerie, for Redmayne’s character to realise that he’s neither a man and nor does he find women attractive.
About a third of the way through this mess of a melodrama, Vikander is preparing soup in the kitchen, and brings her knife firmly down on a rather juicy carrot. Yes, we get it, thanks for pointing it out.
As far as Redmayne and director Tom Hopper are concerned, The Danish Girl is about a man getting his cock chopped off. Pretty much says it all really.