Transgender has been hailed as 2015’s word of the year. Which is not surprising because the transgender community has truly been in our consciousness a great deal last year. Olympic gold medal winning decathlete Bruce Jenner came out as a transwoman on April 2015. The U.S. military service policy on the exclusion of transgender people from service has been opened for review. Obama became the first president to say the word “transgender” in his state of the union speech. Obamacare opened its doors to gender reassignment surgery. Indeed 2015 was a big year for trans people not just in America but the world over because of the public awareness it just raised and perhaps continues to raise, with the end goal of eradicating prejudice treatment. So isn’t it great to be living in this day and age? But can you imagine how it must have been for trans people way back in the 1920s? A time where some of the most brutal racism and discrimination happened?
The Danish Girl tells the story of Lili Elbe once known as Einar Wegener, a famous landscape painter in 1920’s Copenhagen and her journey towards being among the first to undergo sex reassignment surgery. And the twenties wasn’t exactly the age of enlightenment in terms of gender identity issues and neither was it a time of great medical advancement, I presume. And so I came into this expecting to be ripped apart. Pain, discomfort, torture, agony. The whole she bang. I was expecting reality. Surely Lili Elbe’s story was a gruelling one. But I guess Tom Hooper’s vision is different, choosing to deliver an “Oscar bait” of a film rather than a confrontational, disturbing movie about identity. The latter, I would have welcomed more.
But of course, the film is not without merits. For one The Danish Girl looks very stylish and artsy. The colors mimic a painter’s palette. There is a good mixture of light and the dark tones. Alexander Desplat’s score adds more vibrancy and richness. And then there’s Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. These two pretty much elevate the material to loftier heights. They give solid dramatic performances that prevent this movie from being emotionally stunted. Perhaps more Vikander than Redmayne really. But still the latter gives a strong enough portrayal. It’s a terribly ostentatious one, but compelling nonetheless. It helps that Redmayne already has that androgynous look about him. But it is Vikander as Gerda Wegener, the ever forbearing and understanding wife of Einar, who steals the show. Her Gerda has this playful, impish way about her. Almost like a little girl but at the same time she exhibits such grace and strength when called for. And it was regularly called for. And soon enough Vikander establishes Gerda as a formidable lady, tough as nails but kind-hearted as well. She brings such gravitas to her role that this could easily be a Gerda Wegener story. And it kind of is, for the most part.
I think I mistook The Danish Girl for something else. It is a historical romance first and foremost. And that’s fine, but I do wish the movie could have engaged with the transgender issue more, rather than using it as a mere crutch for the love story. Instead the film ended up being too polite for it to bear any weight which is a shame because the issue it tackles calls for fearlessness. It’s a gorgeous looking film with some solid acting. And that’s practically the most you can say about it. It’s an ordinary take on what could have been an extraordinary tale. Sigh.