Once upon a time, perhaps back in 2000 when David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl hit stores, a movie based on that book about a trailblazing transwoman might have felt fresher. Now, though, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have been in the news, and we’ve seen more challenging and advanced narratives about transfolks. Besides that, we’ve seen actual trans performers play trans characters, both well-known (Cox on Orange Is the New Black) and not (Michelle Hendley in the underseen Boy Meets Girl), so a well-meaning Oscar-bait biopic with a cisgendered male (Eddie Redmayne) as trans legend Lili Elbe smells a little fishy. Shouldn’t an actor be free to play any reality?, some may ask. Let’s reframe the question: shouldn’t an actor of an often persecuted part of humanity be able to tell the stories of his or her own experience?
The Danish Girl recounts the early struggle of Lili (née Einar Wegener) to deal with her male-to-female transition while fighting the blinkered intolerance of her milieu (1926 Copenhagen) and trying not to hurt her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who supports Lili up to an understandable point, past which Gerda genuinely can’t go with her. Vikander actually owns the movie — she effortlessly conveys the pain of a woman too enlightened to be horrified by her once-husband’s transformation, but too human not to mourn the passing of the man she fell in love with. It’s the clearest inner conflict in the movie, but it’s been done before. So has Lili’s arc, despite the Right Stuff gendernaut angle of Lili’s (allegedly) being the first to have The Surgery.
Redmayne’s frail, hairless frame does much of his work for him; how odd that he should have headlined two elite biopics in a row, the Stephen Hawking movie being the first, both detailing body’s misalignment with mind. (He’s about ready to go make a film for David Cronenberg, whose work is built upon the Cartesian mind-body split.) But he never made me feel Lili’s vertiginous fright and relief at finally presenting as her own gender. That’s because he doesn’t have the material. The movie is too genteel and antiseptic, and eventually it resolves into a dull fable of Being True to Oneself. Someday a transgender writer/director will tell her/his community’s stories on film, and it will be felt from the inside, not observed from the outside, however compassionately. We will learn more from such a film than we could from movies like The Danish Girl made by people who haven’t actually endured Lili’s pain — who don’t have skin in the game.
In my Les Miserables review I hypothesized that the film’s director, Tom Hooper, might be the worst director ever to own an Oscar for directing. After seeing what he’s done with The Danish Girl, I’m no longer sure the qualification is necessary. You can certainly tell a Tom Hooper film at ten paces. That’s the film that’ll be composed with artsy whimsy, generally with people seated way off to the side of the frame and near the bottom, or scrutinized in punishing close-up, and the shots don’t cut together with any kind of grace because of the fancy compositions (sometimes the shots don’t match each other or the camera blatantly crosses the axis), and scenes just kind of start, go on a bit, and end. That’s the Oscar-winning Tom Hooper touch. If you care at all about movies as constructions of time and rhythm as well as image and sound, the aesthetically ugly cinema of Tom Hooper may cause physical revulsion.
Pompous yet banal, Hooper’s style fits this prestigious bore of a movie. For whom has it been made? Trans audiences will yawn — Lili’s story as presented here isn’t good fodder for inspiration. Transphobic bigots won’t see it in the first place, so they wouldn’t be swayed even if the movie were persuasive. So it’s for nice cisgendered viewers (i.e., those whose gender identities align with their bodies) who enjoy watching other people’s pain if it’s done tastefully enough. No blood is shown during Lili’s two dangerous surgeries, so it won’t spoil your dinner; neither will the scene in which two louts descend on Lili in boy mode, leading to the most ineptly-staged beating I’ve seen in years. Being cisgendered doesn’t disqualify you from making a movie about transgender subjects, but maybe being incompetent should.