The Danish Girl
Directed by Tom Hooper
Opens November 27
It’s probably not fair to knock The Danish Girl, the story of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), who began life as a man and ended as a woman via the first-ever sex reassignment surgery, as late to the trans-awareness party. It’s a well-meaning movie, and despite early reports that it unfairly emphasizes Lili’s wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) over the actual trans character, the two are treated more or less equally in terms of screen time and point of view. But there is an unfortunate and rather tedious sense of discovery about Tom Hooper’s film; it proceeds as if it’s pioneering, rather than an accidental participant in the zeitgeist.
Lili (born Einar) and Gerda are both artists in 1920s Copenhagen, where Gerda isn’t having much luck getting her work shown. When Einar stands in for one of her female models, he acts with reluctant good humor, but is secretly, and then less-secretly, thrilled at the opportunity to display his true self. She paints him, but it might be more accurate to say that he becomes a painting for his wife to work on—the subject and inspiration she needs, hiding in plain sight. Einar realizes that to feel truly himself, he must make a permanent transition to Lili, despite a society that treats his condition as, among other diagnoses, a “chemical imbalance” that should be treated with radiation. Gerda, meanwhile, feels conflicted; confused and sometimes saddened by her husband’s transformation, but ultimately supportive even as his new life edges her out of the picture.
Tom Hooper, the go-to prestige-drama director who snuck up behind Stephen Daldry, gives the movie the veneer of adult respectability: nice set design, tasteful performances, nudity, all that. He frames Lili and Gerda in spacious one-shots that look like the beginnings of a canvas or, if you will, frames from a Tom Hooper movie. Hooper’s work is immediately recognizable, not because he’s one of our foremost stylists, but because he tends to glom onto a few visual signatures—shallow focus, low-angle shots, all that headspace—and try to repeat them into a visual scheme with a relentless, sometimes deadening rhythm. As with The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, these techniques start out striking and wind up kind of dull—and unlike those other two movies, the story of The Danish Girl doesn’t move along at a clip. It’s more of a slow trudge towards a then-grim surgical procedure with more symbolic value than narrative interest.
This leaves the movie to function as a performance piece, a showcase for its two stars. Recent Oscar winner Redmayne gets a fine, quietly moving (and dialogue-free!) scene where he attends a peep show, watching a woman through the glass for cues on “feminine” movement and beginning to imitate them. More broadly, though, Lili’s character feels more like a compendium of physical gestures than a fully-formed person, and Redmayne doesn’t hint at much below the surface once her true sex is exhumed. Vikander can hold her own (she’s more charismatic than Redmayne, which may be why early reactions pegged her as the real star), but she’s in more of a situation than a compelling story. She’s stuck in a movie that plays like a biopic (like Redmayne’s Theory of Everything, it’s positioned as some manner of love story without any of the genre’s pleasures), custom-tuned for your (which is to say the Academy’s) consideration. It turns Lili into a mannequin under a respectful spotlight.