“I have known very few people in my life, and you’re two of them.”
That’s what Parisian art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts) tells Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) — formerly his childhood friend Einar Wegener — in The Danish Girl, a film that’s at once beautiful in cinematography, stunning in its performances (most especially Redmayne, coming off his Best Actor Oscar as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) … and problematic in other ways.
I’m allergic to films “based on a true story” and often avoid them, because the director and writer almost always have the hubris to take liberties with the story, as if real life can’t be better than fiction, as if the true story isn’t good enough to stand on its own. Even more so when the film is based on a novel based on the true story (David Ebershoff’s 2000 book of the same name). But I was drawn to this film in part because of the subject matter — Elbe is one of the first known people, if not the first, to undergo what was once known as sex-change surgery, gender reassignment surgery and, these days, gender affirmation surgery; partially because the first photos released of Redmayne in the role over the summer were astounding, and the trailer even more so.
As a moviegoer and transperson (non-op/pre-op female), I can tell you that the latest from director Tom Hooper (the Oscar-winner for The King’s Speech) is a strong film on first blush, at times difficult to sit through — but, with some time to let it soak in, too self-consciously artistic, striving too hard to be high art rather than focus on the subject matter, and ultimately not powerful enough. It could have been a whole lot more. The real-life story of Wegener/Elbe and wife Gerda, with its triumphs and tragedies, packs even more of a punch than what we see on the screen.