Telling the rousing story of Lili Elbe, a landscape artist who was the first to undergo gender correction surgery, Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper enlists a talented crew lead by last year’s Oscar-winner Eddie Redmaye and illustrious hot ticket item Alicia Vikander. Both show off their acting chops like wolves gnashing at lambs but there’s an uncomfortable air of assumed prestige to Redmayne’s whisper-heavy performance and Tom Hooper’s mawkish tendencies on full display. Redmayne’s clearly a phenomenal talent but, in a role that requires so much externalization of ticking internal clockwork, his turn as Lili risks being too showy, much like the film itself. On the surface, The Danish Girl is among the most “progressive” movies of the year and yet it can never stay the feeling of being tame, almost safe.
Which is a strange occurrence for a film about such a challenging, even controversial topic. It almost feels as if screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (who, it’s worth noting, has very little else credited to her name) assumes that the subject matter is too risqué to be narratively risky. In that regard, The Danish Girl flirts with a line of almost passing judgement on its characters in a near ugly way. And yet, Coxon and Hooper seems ignorant of their questionable treatment of its titular character – who for all intents and purposes is the transgender equivalent of the noble savage – and so can’t be discounted for bad intentions.
And still, the permeating stench of a screenwriter actively trying not to push the dial matched with a director with an almost compulsive need for over-the-top aesthetic elegance makes for a character study that often feels an arm’s length away, even when the performances try their damnest to reach out and grab you by the throat.
As Lili, Redmayne must navigate the tricky footing of a woman trapped in a man’s body. When we’re first acquainted with Lili, she’s Einar Wegener, a shy artist holed up in her chic Copenhagen apartment that she (then he) shares with wife Gerda (Vikander), also a talented artist but one who has yet to identify her niche. It isn’t until a chance encounter involving a tardy model that Gerda enlists a hesitant and oh-so-shapely Einar to slip on some stockings and assume a modeling stance. Almost instantly, Einar falls hopefully for the look of the stockings pulled tight over his lanky legs, the casual drape of the dress hanging gingerly from his knobby knees.
The scene is played in earnest with Redmayne inflecting an awful lot with soft glances that communicate a potpourri of confusion and adoration. That it feels like a soapy invention of a screenwriter to have Lili realize her latent femininity via trying on a dress for her wife’s painting is ironic, seeing that this is how events actually occurred. But the factualness of The Danish Girl begins to erode not too soon after and this leads many of its characters to make strange, often bewildering forks in the road.
Though it will be easier to heap praise at the feet of Eddie Redmayne for a performance that is no doubt brave and challenging and heroic and so on and so forth, Alicia Vikander is even better playing Gerda. While Redmayne’s performance almost crosses an invisible threshold in which his subtlety builds upon itself into a great snowball of obviousness, Vikander’s turn as Greda never comes across as a performance. If this is the litmus test by which we judge a performance, hers would pass with flying colors while his might sink, weighed down by Hooper’s prying hand and a borderline obsessive need to act to the nines. And this could be because Vikander’s not tasked with handling whatever convoluted micro-aggressions Coxon slipped into Lili’s side of screenplay, but I beg to differ. Vikander handles the material well, even when the writing is troublesome. Vikander is phenomenal even when the problems with her characters are many and great.
That is to say, she’s not quite internally consistent. To see her struggle alongside Einar is to read the empathy seeping from her very pores but as the married couple pursue the awkward rabbit hole of having Einar become Lili, there’s something screwy about Gerda’s commitment in the face of rejection. This ultimately makes sense because the person on whom she is based made very different decisions when faced with the reality of the situation. This explains why many of her choices do not register as genuine when she’s being pushed away from Lili, who is now trying to carve out a life of her own. A subplot involving her blooming success as a portrait artist comes into play but is quickly overcome by the Lili show.
In quiet early moments shared between Redmayne and Vikander, The Danish Girl soars. There’s a tenderness in the raw, earthy material of Hooper’s fabric that makes for some really heart-wrenching, oft confusing actualizations but, in The Danish Girl, it’s so caked with high gloss and done up with sheeny bells and whistles (Alexandre Desplat offers his most inappropriately ornate score yet) that the arduous true life story clashes irreconcilably with its over-polished presentation. For those looking for a transgender product that knows exactly what it is, look to the superior, DIY success story of Tangerine.
CONCLUSION: There’s no doubt that The Danish Girl is a well-made, well-acted piece of prestige cinema but its occasionally tactless handling of challenging issues awkwardly overwhelms at too many turns.