For generations, immature schoolboys have made fools of themselves by tucking their genitals in-between their legs and shouting “look, I’m a woman!” at anybody who will indulge their cock-based humour. The “Man-gina” is a staple of playground camaraderie, one whose sheer stupidity was funny to everybody when they were younger. In the playground, its harmless fun; in one of the first mainstream films to deal with transgender issues, including a man-gina sequence is like casting a film about African-American social issues with an entirely white cast in blackface.
The Danish Girl has its heart in the right place, which is why such missteps can be forgiven. But in the days since viewing, I’m constantly reminded solely of its missteps, that act to the detriment of the more progressive elements of the film and non-offensive portrayals of the transgender community in cinema as a whole.
The film is part of the increasingly popular sub-genre of the “semi-fictionalised biopic” (i.e: some shit that happened and some shit that didn’t). Its Copenhagen in the 1920’s, married artist couple Gerda (Alicia Vikander) and Einar (Eddie Redmayne) are both polar opposites in terms of success- Gerda is frequently reminded her work isn’t as good of that of her husband and she is yet to find the right subject for her portraits. When one of her desired subjects doesn’t show, she asks her husband to dress the way she desired her model to, unintentionally awakening the true identity beneath Einar- slowly, the transition to become Lili begins, becoming the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery in history.
The clunky nature of this synopsis can be attributed to my political correctness; with Eddie Redmayne essentially performing a dual role divided between both sexes, it is hard to refer to the character using the correct pronouns at any given point. This synopsis also makes it sound like the character had a sudden awakening instead of a suppressed awareness all along; the topic is handled far more sensitively and realistically, even if it is simplified to make it palatable for more conservative audiences.
This may be a film designed as awards-bait, but doesn’t feel cynical about its subject matter- its way of telling a true life story in a way to engage less liberal audiences is handled in a sensitive manner that only highlights how downright offensive similar LGBT awards bait recently has been. Dallas Buyers Club, which turned the sexuality of the main character from bi-sexual to homophobic to engage less tolerant audiences, should clearly take lessons from The Danish Girl in how to enlighten the less socially-enlightened in a way that doesn’t feel like pandering.
Director Tom Hooper has built a reputation upon directing audience-friendly crowd pleasers, that may be easy to mock due to how directly they position themselves to older and more conservative audiences, but at least show he is capable of cinematic flare. His best film as a director is his least cinematic; his debut The Damned United, here referenced in the dialogue as Einar claims he is in the “top one” of artists, like Brian Clough was boasted he was in the “top one” of football managers. Its callbacks like this that make you realise that Hooper always deals with screenplays that feel like they would be more at home on Sunday afternoon television, where the desired older audience can tune in to watch just before Songs of Praise, but he has a feel for cinematic visuals that justify their position on the big screen.
The fact both characters are artists makes it easy to describe the shot-compositions as “painterly”, with the visuals interesting enough to make it never less than watchable, without being distracting enough to the non-arthouse crowd. He shamelessly occupies the middlebrow ground, the space in the Venn diagram where mainstream and arthouse tastes collide- only its commitment to tastefulness (even during its worst moments, it is never trying to be anything less than noble about its subject) will alienate the more artfully inclined among us.
I’ve previously claimed Eddie Redmayne is a cynical actor who only chooses roles based on whether or not they will gain him awards recognition; even his role in Jupiter Ascending seemed calculated to get him a Razzie as well as an Oscar. I can’t deny that I feel his motivations for choosing this role feel cynical, as both “dual role” and “LGBT role” command attention from the academy, but thankfully his showboating doesn’t feel as central to this film as it did in the tediously bland The Theory of Everything. The film is completely stolen by The Swedish Girl- Alicia Vikander, fast becoming the best actress alive, here giving a perfectly pitched performance that feels like the only component of the film begging for award recognition (and therefore the only thing deserving of them). Vikander is the beating heart and soul of the film; a more interesting take on the subject matter would be solely from her perspective, coming to terms with a loved one having a true identity that renders her love incompatible. When focused solely on her character, the reservations I have about the central storyline and its oft-heavy handed portrayal of transgender issues pale into insignificance.
There are far better films that deal with the “transgender coming out” narrative, such as director Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, but as the first mainstream film to tackle the topic, Tom Hooper should be commended for his noble attempt. Missteps were all but guaranteed, what with the controversial nature of the subject, but it is a minor surprise for it to not frequently come across as pandering awards bait.