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'The Danish Girl' is better as a break-up movie than a trans movie

Eddie Redmayne plays Lili Elbe, one of the first people to transition into a woman, in "The Danish Girl," which works best when focusing on her break-up with her ex-wife.

‘The Danish Girl’
Director:
Tom Hooper
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

As a film about one of the first cases of surgical gender reassignment, “The Danish Girl” is only so-so. As a break-up movie it’s downright radical. The story of Lili Elbe, who was born as Einar and is played by Eddie Redmayne, is told with delicacy, empathy and not a small amount of monotony, in part because the filmmakers never figured out a solid way into their real-ish story. (The film is based on a fictionalized version of a real tale, some of whose key particulars are presently lost to history.) The story of how Lili split ways with her ex-wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), also delicate too, but it’s also sharp, insightful, quietly tough and maybe even profound about how love can last even after a good, devastating dumping.

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One thing “The Danish Girl” can’t be reduced to is a mere message of tolerance. But perhaps it should have been, at least a little. Lili began transitioning in the 1920s, almost 100 years ago, but we see little of any discrimination or even fear she must have faced. When Lili — formerly an esteemed and well-dressed painter — decided to be Lili, she simply becomes Lili, her only real obstacle being the early days of modern surgery. Even an old friend (Matthias Schoenaerts), despite growing into a macho art dealer, is totally cool talking about that time they kissed when they were boys.

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You could say that’s the point — that it wants to offer a fantasy version of her self-actualization, one portrayed as normal, because that’s how it should be seen. But it’s also viewing the past through an advanced modern lens, while, ironically, offering little to say about transgendered people today, who still face discrimination and violence.

At the very least it makes for failed drama. We have little to do but wait for Lili to go from male to female, and then die from her surgeries, meaning it’s just another story about a doomed LGBT character dying a beatific death. Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech,” “Les Miserables”) offers little but pretty pictures — images that are more about the colors and (sometimes weirdo) framing than engaging with Lili’s awakening. Progressive subject matter and all, it’s still another vacant period piece.

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That being said, we can always, when we’re lulled into near-sleep, glom onto Lili and Gerda. A lot of movies about couples parting ways focus on nasty splits. Lili and Gerda’s break-up isn’t free of acrimony, but it’s essentially a force for good. There was little in the way of precedent for what happened to them, but for Gerda to stand in Lili’s way would be pure selfishness. And yet Gerda is still losing her soulmate. Lili is so serious about transitioning that she quits paintings and says, point blank, that Einar no longer exists. Einar, Gerda’s soulmate, becomes a ghost, a figment to live on in their memories.

Redmayne’s performance is no mere stunt, but Vikander has the trickier part — the one who has to balance heartbreak with selflessness, and has to do it through reaction shots and careful line readings. You can read her face to see the strength she must acquire to love Lili enough to let Einar go, just as you can scan Lili’s face to see the anguish becoming herself causes the lover she has to abandon. “The Danish Girl” does what few movies about break-ups do: It argues that being dumped can both be devastating and an extension of one’s love — that love for someone can become deeper when you let them break up with you and move on. It’s not very useful as a portrait of being transgender, but it’s pretty priceless as an exploration of breaking up.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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