How does one write about a movie like The Danish Girl? It’s a narrative film, so there’s, well, the narrative to think about. It’s also a biopic, though, so there’s the history and representation of actual people to think about. And, of course, there’s the status of the film’s protagonist, Lili Elbe, as a transgender woman—a group that still faces rampant discrimination and violence—so there are the sociological implications to think about. While it’d be foolish of me to write about those as three distinct things, it still leaves me uncertain of how I can balance all of the aspects of a movie that sits at so many intersections.
Perhaps the easiest context to consider is the work of Tom Hooper. To this end, Film Crit Hulk’s discussion of cinematography in Hooper’s first two movies, The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, is critical. Hulk point(s) out how frequently Hooper employs distinctive cinematic techniques like the famous Kubrick-hallway-tracking-shot with no understanding of their function. The result is a movie with flashy moments that either do not support or contradict what is actually happening and how the audience is meant to feel. And sadly, that problem is still on display here. There are occasional low angles that add a sense of power and uneasiness to a scene where we’re simply supposed to see Lili (Eddie Redmayne) and her wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), connect. There are cuts between picturesque long shots and sudden close-ups that occur frequently, and they set a fast and jarring pace for a movie that wants to be thoughtful and realistic. Hooper has improved here, but there are still many scenes where the framing and editing take me out of the movie and undercut the emotion of the scene.
As a result, even though The Danish Girl is certainly engaging, it never clicks. The movie doesn’t have a strong sense of emotional continuity, largely due to the cinematography issues, so it’s hard to participate fully in Elbe’s emotional journey revealed through her physical journey. I don’t think Hooper should have evoked the same emotion for the entire runtime, but the transition between scenes that were sad, happy, or painful never work. Instead of an emotional journey, it’s an emotional staircase.
All of that being said, I want to emphasize that none of this makes the movie bad, it just means its potential isn’t fully met. And it’s worth noting that the successes of The Danish Girl are many. Elbe’s story, although emotionally fragmented, is powerful. The journey she experiences as Einar Wegener—from having at most a repressed awareness of her identity as a transgender woman to being one of the first documented cases of sex reassignment surgery—encompasses the joys of living out one’s true identity, the violent reactions of others, and the extreme confusion of having an identity that your society does not understand. When Elbe first goes out in public presenting as female, she is surprised to meet a man, Henrik (Ben Whishaw), who is attracted to her. As their flirtation turns physical, Elbe does not know how to interpret her feelings on the matter. On the one hand, she has never kissed a man, and that experience is new and exciting. On the other hand, she points out that he did not ask her permission, so she was forced into the encounter against her will. When society does not provide a clear frame of reference for gender identity, sexuality, and consent, these kinds of interactions compound the already difficult experience of having a gender identity that differs from your prescribed gender.
These moments exhibit the movie’s acute awareness of the difficulties Elbe faced, and I think that this indicates the movie’s success as a biopic. Although being trans is still largely not understood by society, and the movie is not made by a transgender person, the treatment of the subject feels emotionally honest in portraying Elbe’s life. That being said, the sociological context of the movie is not necessarily kind. This post by Rani Baker points out the problematic tropes that are used in telling Elbe’s story. Some of the emphasized beats of the story are just cliche at this point and ultimately regressive in their portrayal of transgender women, like the unachievable (living) happy ending for transgender people, or the “forced feminization” trope. Further, casting a cis actor as a trans character is a disputed topic that bears mentioning; transgender actors are severely underrepresented in the film industry, so one issue is that it precludes fairness in hiring because even non-transphobic people are affected by stereotypes. Further, though, it can be connected to the idea of actors putting on makeup to portray another race: usually, these characteristics are determined by stereotypes and ultimately tie into issues of transphobia from the history of film.
While the use of tropes and casting issues are not necessarily damning for the overall narrative of The Danish Girl, I do think they are worth pointing out. After all, the movie draws attention to its sociological context by portraying the difficulties of transitioning in a society that does not understand it, and then releasing the movie to an audience who lives in a society that isn’t free from all of those issues. And even though Hooper has crafted an engaging character study, the narrative and sociological issues combine to show The Danish Girl‘s major flaw: it’s a story about a transgender person, but told for a mainstream, largely cisgender audience. Hooper does not have a strong grasp on the cornerstones of direction, but even if he did, the traditional framing of Elbe’s story is at odds with her non-traditional experience. While I don’t doubt that a director could pull off this contrast, Hooper certainly does not.
As a result, The Danish Girl struggles to be about the issues transgender people face and a traditional character study, ultimately failing at both. However, the viewer may still find value in the performances of Redmayne and Vikander, whose careers prove ever more promising. Hooper knows how to capture the best of his actors, and both Redmayne and Vikander provide fantastic subtlety to their characters. Vikander in particular shows once more that she is an actress capable of sublime physical performances.
Hooper has made a movie that I fear is emblematic of his career. It’s effective and engaging, but not particularly memorable and riddled with directorial flaws. While The Danish Girl might indicate an improvement and a partially successful broadening of scope, it ultimately reaffirms the limitations Hooper has as a director. If you have enjoyed his previous efforts, I suggest watching The Danish Girl; if you haven’t, then you’ll probably do well to save yourself the two hours.