Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl is about a man’s quest to find himself, or, more appropriately, as it soon becomes clear, herself.
That man, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), is a famous landscape artist. He lives with his wife, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), a portrait artist, in Copenhagen. At an early moment in the film, when a female model doesn’t turn up on time for a portrait nearing completion, Gerda asks Einar to stand in for her. Einar stretches his right leg, mimicking the model’s pose in the portrait, holds her dress close to him, and caresses it, presumably wondering about the world that’s always fascinated him.
In theory, it’s an intense dramatic moment, which shows the gradual, and quite possibly, the irreversible, awakening of the main character. But it also comes quite abruptly, and early, in the movie, without priming us enough about Einar and what he really wants.
A few scenes later, when he attends a get together dressed as a woman for the first time, as “Einar’s cousin” Lili, she meets a guy at the party, and their conversation ultimately culminates in a kiss. This scene, too, much like the earlier one, disappoints and jolts our expectations, because it doesn’t set up Einar’s desires, or hints about his inner life.
Sure, The Danish Girl is about Lili, the film’s poster girl (in ways more than one), but in a bid to introduce her quickly, Hooper ignores the film’s most crucial questions: Who is Einar Wegener? What are the origins of his wants? Einar, a married man in his late 20s, must not have suddenly woken up to the fact that his body, and most importantly, his mind, belongs to a woman? In the absence of these questions, and consequently, their answers, The Danish Girl’s initial portion feels untethered, trying, but failing, to find its emotional core.
Based on a 2000 bestselling novel of the same name, The Danish Girl is based on a true story, both incredible and devastating, revolving around a fundamental human curiosity: identity.
How much is our mind a function of our body? And what happens one when fails to complement the other? The Danish Girl, however, is not the only film in recent times to explore that conundrum. Pedro Almodóvar’s 2011 psychological thriller, The Skin I Live in, and Xavier Dolan’s 2012 romantic drama, Lawrence, Anyways, explored these motifs much more adeptly, made by filmmakers at the top of their game, confident enough to let their films have different meanings, offer multiple ways of engagement.
Here, Hooper, in contrast, comes across as a tight-fisted filmmaker, who cramps his film with so many elements eager to impress — the perpetually melancholic leads; an explanatory background score, which seems to function on a cue; the single-minded, and at times hurried, plot — that it seems as if he wants to think and feel on our behalf.
And he struggles to surprise, challenge, or move us throughout the movie (although the last one is definitely not for the lack of trying). The Danish Girl is careful and one-note, but its greatest flaw is that it feels familiar, like reading a story, with a well-known plot, written in pedestrian prose.