Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” is an important film, but is it necessarily a good one? As the conversation around transgender people intensifies and enters further into the mainstream, a film like this is essential in the same way “Brokeback Mountain” was key in changing hearts and minds about homosexual men. To that end, Hooper’s overly-restrained and wispy style, coupled with a fairly straight-forward biopic narrative, may be the perfect fit for making the film palatable to audiences. But it also prevents the film from being as revelatory as it should be, especially given the transcendent performances that do justice to such a meaningful story.
From the moment Eddie Redmayne was confirmed to play Lili Elbe, the first recipient of sexual reassignment surgery, the calls have been out there for him to earn his second Best Actor victory. And that may be the case as he’s once again terrifically genuine and subtle, especially opposite Alicia Vikander who is gaining similar notices for her work as Elbe’s incredibly devoted wife. If only the screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, adapting the book by David Ebershoff, was half as courageous but instead it goes with the safest possible route.
The 1920s-set story begins with famous landscape artist Einar Wegener (Redmayne), who shared an idyllic life and marriage in Copenhagen with wife, Gerda (Vikander), an aspiring artist of her own. She’s more interested in painting portraits, but when she can’t find a model for a particular piece she turns to Einar to model as a woman. The sensation in his eyes upon feeling the soft touch of female garments is like an awakening of the spirit. Something inside him has been unleashed and can’t be bottled back up. With the help of their ballerina friend (Amber Heard), Einar’s alter ego is christened “Lili”and it isn’t long before she begins to dominate their lives. Einar practically disappears as Lili takes over, leaving Gerda to wonder what has happened to her husband. At one point she practically begs to see her husband again, but Einar is so far gone into becoming Lili that he simply refuses. He wants to live a life as Lili, as the woman he feels himself to be, even if that destroys his once-perfect marriage.
The tract Hooper and Coxon take in presenting Elbe’s self-actualization is unsubtle, painted in the kind of broad strokes that often hamper these kinds of biopics. For example, he captures the duality within Einar/Lili with a prevalence of mirroring shots, including one scene where Einar mimics the actions of a female dancer. Hooper shoots them with grace, naturally, but then again he shoots everything that way even when the scene doesn’t necessarily demand it. Some might say he’s got too light of a filmmaking touch, but that also fits the desire to keep this complicated story as uncomplicated as possible.
The film is at its most compelling when it dares to explore Lili’s impact on others, and society’s view of her existence. We’re talking about 1926 when doctors were throwing women into insane asylums with shocking regularity for common ailments, so one can imagine what they thought of Einar/Lili, who leaped from more than a few windows to escape being locked away. There’s also Lili’s brief dalliance with a handsome man (Ben Whishaw) that forces her to reevaluate what she wants from a relationship standpoint. That causes friction with Gerda, whose painting career has unexpectedly taken off based solely on her images of Lili. Another interesting avenue finds Lili discovering what life as a woman is really like just as she reconnects with an old friend (the always-great Matthias Schoenaerts) who Einar shared an intimate moment with years earlier.
There aren’t many actors who would take on the challenge of playing Lili Elbe, and fewer still who could pull it off with the kind of ease Redmayne does. He’s simply a marvel when embracing such outwardly physical roles and this one is arguably more demanding than his turn as Stephen Hawking. It requires more nuances in his movements, especially during the phase where Einar is learning to become Lili. Once again he’s paired up with an actress who more than holds her own opposite him, with Vikander showing Gerda to be a true beacon of strength and resolve, even as she’s coping with her husband’s transformation. Vikander has had the kind of year any actress dreams of, and this is a great way to put a cap on it.
Perhaps there’s no easy way to present this story and keep it palatable to mainstream audiences. Although it’s rather sad that audiences need to be catered to in that way, it’s an unfortunate reality when it comes to such an issue. With the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner into the national spotlight, “The Danish Girl” is in a perfect position to open a few eyes about transgenderism, and while it doesn’t push the envelope as far as one might hope, it admirably takes the first steps in moving the discussion forward and opens the door for more films on this subject.