Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts
Similarly to its courageous central character, The Danish Girl is a film that never doubts what it wants to be. Sweeping shots of lush fields and misty-covered mountains establish a grandiose aesthetic, Alexandre Desplat’s emotionally overwrought score – characteristic of the composer – sets a sensitive tone, and if that wasn’t enough, awards season supremo Tom Hooper directs.
This is a primitive prestige picture of the most obvious kind, so sickeningly sympathetic that its desperate desire for awards recognition practically radiates from the screen. A film that wants to be looked upon as “worthy”, but is so placid when it should be powerful that it’s ultimately a worthless watch.
The story is a fictitious telling of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe’s groundbreaking journey of self-discovery, which saw her become one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery. When we first meet Lili, however, she is Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), a popular landscape painter who’s living in Copenhagen and husband to fellow artist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander).Einar may not initially be conscious of it, but the quivers of excitement expressed as he caresses his wife’s nylons and glides through the backstage wardrobe of the local ballet school are plain for us to see. With affecting tenderness, Hooper delicately chips away at Einar’s struggle of self-realisation in the early stages, his camera – ably handled by Hooper’s regular DP Danny Cohen – lingering on the striking looks of pure ecstasy etched on Eddie Redmayne’s face as we watch him pose as a lady in Gerda’s paintings.
Redmayne’s transformative central performance is the primary draw here. However, it is also one of the film’s underlying problems. Following on from his Oscar-winning role in last year’s The Theory of Everything, this is another very physical performance from the assured British actor, but by contrast his embodiment of Lili is a far showier spectacle, devoid of the psychological subtleties that made his study of Hawking so painful to observe. There are flickers of genius to be found underneath the array of immaculately coutured dresses – “am I pretty enough,” asks Lili tentatively during one particularly touching moment – but none of it is enough to illuminate the film as a whole.The fundamental flaw, however, is Lucinda Coxon’s script, which is about as weighty as a soufflé. As with Redmayne’s performance, there’s a consequential lack of emotional complexity within the writing; it’s glossy and shallow, happy to rely on strained sensitivity and unable – or perhaps uninterested – in offering the audience anything that could be considered dramatically substantial. To her credit, Alicia Vikander – excellent as ever – does her best to add an emotive coat to the superficial canvas, but she is woefully ill served throughout by Coxon’s text and, more significantly, Hooper’s regrettably routine direction.
There are thematic issues also. In the past year, the topic of transgenderism has experienced something of a cinematic liberation, most notably through the cynical Tinseltown-set triumph Tangerine, which succeeded spectacularly in giving contemporary trans culture a vital voice. And yet, unlike that film, The Danish Girl, certainly the most mainstream movie to tackle the subject thus far, shows no interest in encouraging you to invest or interact with the issues being explored. It may be a film that’s destined to reap many rewards, but if so it has failed to earn them.