Not every fact-based LGBT story has to have a happy ending. Things didn't end well for Brandon Teena in Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, but his fate illustrated the resistance transgender individuals have had to face just for trying to live their authentic lives.
The problem with The Danish Girl isn't that a sad fate also befell Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) but that director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Misérables) twists himself into knots to present her journey as the stuff of inspiration and uplift. Then again, he chose not to draw from Niels Hoyer's 1933 biography Man into Woman, but from David Ebershoff's 2000 novel The Danish Girl. So it's a literary adaptation rather than a biopic, but as is often the case in these sorts of instances, the true story was more fascinating.
The film begins in Copenhagen in 1926, with landscape painter Einar Wegener enjoying a congenial marriage to portrait painter Gerda (Ex Machina's Alicia Vikander). Though Gerda's work hasn't found as much favor as Einar's, he supports her unreservedly. When he creates a female persona called Lili, she does the same for him. At first it's an experiment, a way to get in touch with his feminine side, but as Lili becomes real and Einar becomes the construct, Gerda sticks by her. It's a lovely story, except it isn't true.
By focusing so intently on gender, the film dances around sexual orientation, because that would complicate the message that true love transcends such earthly concerns. And so Einar and Gerda spend most of the film as a married couple until, all of a sudden, they're not. Lucinda Coxon's script, which becomes maddeningly vague when faced with anything that would tarnish the fantasy, suggests an amicable divorce in which the two remained close. In truth, the marriage was annulled and they drifted apart, though some real-life couples have had better luck.
The real Gerda was attracted to both genders, but her cinematic analogue prefers men, particularly Lili's childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts). The shy, retiring Lili, meanwhile, appears devoid of sexual desires, and she even balks when fellow painter Henrik (Ben Whishaw), who "reads" her as a gay man rather than a straight woman, makes a pass at her.
But she perseveres, and a German surgeon (Sebastian Koch from The Lives of Others) helps Lili to complete her physical transformation. That should be the inspirational part, except the director and the story are at cross purposes, because afterward, Lili, now living in Paris, stops going out and stops painting. She probably stopped making money, too, but that's yet another complicating factor in which the director has no interest. The vivacious Gerda becomes an art-world star, while the sweet, sad Lili becomes a virtual recluse. That's hardly uplifting, especially in light of the final sequence in which the focus shifts from the transgender heroine to Gerda and Hans, her cisgender support system.
The real Lili Elbe deserves credit for forging ahead where few before her had gone, but Hooper's decision to leave out crucial details feels more dishonest than respectful (and if he really wanted to strike a blow against Hollywood's heteronormative hegemony, he would have hired a transgender actor to play her). Instead, she comes across as a symbol, which is not insignificant, but in Hilary Swank's performance, Brandon Teena was a human being first and foremost—a human being who deserved better from life than he got. Lili, in turn, deserves better than the pretty, pastel treatment Hooper has applied to her life.