Movie Review: The Danish Girl

This review spoils the ending of the movie, so proceed with caution.

I know I say this a lot, but one of my favorite things about film, books, TV, or really any art is perspective–you’re seeing the world through a very, very specific lens, getting to see how that writer experiences it themselves. Frankly, I don’t just enjoy the perspective. I think it’s crucial. I guess that’s why studies have begun to show that avid readers tend to be more empathetic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if avid filmgoers, especially ones open to a wide variety of genres, are the same way.

The Danish Girl is based on the true story of Danish transgender artist Einar, later Lili, one of the first people to undergo a sex-change operation. To be honest, the movie isn’t a masterpiece, and although I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it wasn’t important or even moving–in fact, the film’s greatest success is its emotion and humanity.

Lili’s story is important to tell, and it’s important to see, especially for those who might not understand what it means to be transgender or who have some very disrespectful, nasty opinions on the subject. I may not have been wowed by the film, but there’s something poignant about watching such a personal story unfold, and it’s hard to watch The Danish Girl and not be struck by how crucial it is to let people live however they’d like. The film focuses on Lili’s struggle with her gender identity, of course, but part of that is seeing how happy Lili was to be able to live as a woman. It’s hard to object to something that brings someone such happiness, and the fact that Eddie Redmayne, who plays Einar/Lili, portrays it so effectively is a testament to his acting. This is actually the first Redmayne movie I’ve seen, and I was impressed. I’d love DiCaprio to win the Oscar for The Revenant as much as basically any other fan of his, but I have to be honest and say that not only does Redmayne deserve the win, but I actually think I’d prefer to see him get it. The two performances are very different, but something about Redmayne’s is much more moving.

I think party of that is the emotional depth of what’s happening, and maybe that’s where the movie fell just a little short for me–it was like there was a layer that maybe wasn’t fully tapped into, I don’t know. But this was as much about Lili’s marriage to wife Gerda as it was her experience being transgender, especially when you see how the couple interacts and what they go through. They start off happy and face some obstacles, of course, but you also see Gerda support Lili throughout. Gerda wants to do whatever she can for Lili, and she refuses to accept doctors’ suggestions that she’s mentally ill or has something wrong with her somehow. On the other side, you see how much Lili truly loved Gera. One of the best, most moving moments for me was when Gerda comes to Lili’s bedside after the first of two operations and Lili, writhing around and in pain, calms down and grins very genuinely when she sees Gerda. Again, it’s a testament to Redmayne’s acting–as well as Alicia Vikander’s, who played Gerda–that a very simple moment was packed with emotion.

Speaking of medicine, The Danish Girl also gave a brief but interesting glimpse at the era’s healthcare, both mental and physical. As Gerda and Lili try to understand just what Lili’s going through, they visit doctor after doctor–one tries radiation on Lili, one “diagnoses” her as a homosexual, and Lili peeks at another doctor’s notes and sees that he’s written “schizophrenic,” prompting her to slip out of the office when he steps away just in time to avoid being carried off in a straightjacket.

It’s also funny that with the state of modern medicine now in 2016, I went into this movie taking it for granted that the operation would go smoothly. I mean, logically, I should’ve known better, but I think that’s a testament to how far we’ve come that I genuinely didn’t consider anything less than a happy ending. Unfortunately, though, the final scenes of the movie were less than effective for me.

As one could probably predict, Lili dies of complications after the second of two surgeries. Gerda and a childhood friend of Lili’s return to where he and Lili grew up, with Gerda wearing a scarf Lili had bought for her earlier in the film, only to have Gerda insist she keep it for herself. Gerda now wears it as a kind of memento, which is very sweet, but as the two stand in the wind looking at the landscape, the wind whips Gerda’s scarf from around her neck and sends it flying through the air. Lili’s friend initially goes to catch until Gerda stops him, and the two watch it go. Personally, it was heavy-handed and a little cheesy, and I could’ve done without it entirely.

But despite the flaws in The Danish Girl, it is a movie worth seeing, not just for the story it tells but because the acting is excellent, from Redmayne in particular.

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