The Danish Girl begins some time in the mid-1920s, with landscape artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) becoming the toast of the national art scene. His wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) is also an artist, but is finding little interest for her portraits. Then one day, Gerda asks her husband to fill in for a female model running late. Einar poses for his wife in women's clothing, and this awakens something inside of him. Gerda surprisingly finds success with her paintings of "Lili," her husband's female alter ego. Meanwhile, Einar struggles with questions of identity, as he finds that he enjoys being Lili more than being Einar.
One should likely know that while The Danish Girl claims to tell the true story of Lili Elbe, it is actually based on the novel of the same title, which reshaped the story into a fictionalized romantic narrative. The movie reintroduces a few historic details, but mainly sticks to the established fiction. It restores the name of Gerda Wegener, for example, but omits many of the true-life details that made her such an interesting figure. This version of the story reshapes the real woman as a simpler figure, a wife that doesn't really understand her husband's struggle, but loves him enough to stick by him.
This feels a little uncomfortable, since the film is ostensibly about people learning to accept who they really are. It feels strange that the movie would suppress the fact that the real Gerda was openly a lesbian, and that her career in art was built on exotic paintings of women. In the same way, it feels a little troubling that the movie overemphasizes the trouble that Lili has with her transformation, completely ignoring the fact that the real Wegeners were able to live openly in Paris with their specific proclivities.
Accuracy is always a topic of contention in art that deals with real life figures, and its value certainly varies between audiences. But it feels particularly manipulative in this case, and the choices made end up undermining the overall themes. This is a movie that makes a case for understanding, but it seems to make little effort to understand its own subject. Its portrayal of Einar and Lili as separate identities feels like a dramatic convenience, and doesn't seem to reflect the experiences of anyone actually going through a similar experience. Though the film outright states that Lili isn't some sort of disorder, its depiction of her existence contradicts that stance.
Putting aside the uncomfortable aspects of this movie, it is mostly watchable. It is put together with the kind do of gloss that one expects from these films that receive awards attention. The shooting of it is never too interesting, but it never looks ugly. Eddie Redmayne works really hard in this role, crafting two distinct characters in his performance. Though I maintain that this is an iffy choice at best, one can still acknowledge the skill that Redmayne contributes. Alicia Vikander certainly makes the most out of a role that isn't as interesting as it could be. This movie is just as much about Gerda dealing with her husband's new status quo, and Vikander makes the conflicting feelings palpable at any given moment.
The Danish Girl feels a little backwards, in spite of its theoretically progressive subject matter. For the movie, the truth is either not enough, or too much for mainstream audience. Whatever the case, it doesn't really do justice to the real people from which the movie ostensibly draws its inspiration. It applies a weird filter of conservatism to this story, changing details such that it still becomes a story of loving husbands and wives, rather than the stranger, more remarkable story of libertines who bucked all convention as they pursued their happiness. For a film so much about identity, it feels a little odd that it tries to suppress so much.