Period drama awards fare, especially period drama awards fare from British director Tom Hooper, can be counted on for certain surface pleasures. The production design will be lavish and tactile. The costuming will be spectacular, but not try overly hard to present itself as such. And the cast will emote such that hearts of stone are softened, or outright eroded in a downpour of waterworks. As the latest addition to the Hooper oeuvre, The Danish Girl makes for another very nice looking historical bauble.
Unfortunately for The Danish Girl, it arrives with the weight, or perhaps responsibility of being one of the most notable films about transgender living in a year very much defined by discussion of gender fluidity. Adapted from David Ebershoff’s award-winning novel of the same name, The Danish Girl is a fictionalized account of the life of Lili Elbe, the first known transgender woman to receive sex reassignment surgery. Born in 1882 to the name Einar Wegener, the Danish artist would grow to moderate fame, and wed fellow painter Gerda Gottlieb, before undertaking the then-radical surgery in 1930.
Hooper’s three previous features, The Damned United, The King’s Speech, and Les Misérables, all had clear lines of distinction. This is our team, this is our country, this is our movement, they’d say or sing in a head-on fashion that played to Hooper’s directness as a filmmaker. With The Danish Girl, however, he’s tackling a more intimate story using the same skillset he’s applied to more open subjects featuring larger casts. In mounting a mostly two-person marital drama, Hooper colours with the same broad strokes and big emotions of his ensemble pieces. He’s a landscape artist trying to make a portrait, and while the images remain affecting, they’re absent personal texture or meaning.
Well, absent subtlety of meaning, to be more accurate. “I won’t fall into the bog. The bog is inside me,” Eddie Redmayne’s Lili says, still identifying as Einar in the 1926 that the film opens on. To say that the Wegener marriage at the time is portrayed as a happy one would be an understatement. Though Gerda (Alicia Vikander) resents that her work being overshadowed by her husband’s, most of the couple’s time is spent in various stages of frolic, copulation, and general bliss. (They even have an adorable little terrier keeping them company).
Yet Einar’s outward contentment belies a lifelong feeling of discomfort in his body. When he first starts dressing in women’s fashion, Gerda encourages him gamely, and starts sketching her husband as “Lili.” As Einar becomes more honest and physically possessive of his identification as Lili, the Wegener marriage starts to crack. It’s here that The Danish Girl finds a compelling central tension, with Gerda’s support of her husband only distancing herself further from the person she fell in love with. For Lili, learning to navigate the world as a transgender woman is its own challenge. Some of The Danish Girl’s best scenes keep you, and Lili in the dark about what it is other people are seeing when they look at her.
Such restraint is rarely observed elsewhere. Bookended by the shortest TOS (that is, Time to Orchestral Swell) in recent memory, and a closing metaphor that Forrest Gump would think was forced, The Danish Girl’s outsized drama doesn’t support the sensitive interior lives it’s trying to explore. Danny Cohen’s cinematography makes the whole of the production gorgeous to look at, and Hooper does craft some denser images using wide-angle lenses and selective points of focus. Mostly, though, The Danish Girl is concerned with making its exterior as stirringly emotional as possible, whenever possible.
Once again, Hooper’s performers carry a lot of that burden. Redmayne, coming off an Oscar for The Theory of Everything, is very good here, playing Lili as Einar, and Lili as Lili with control of voice and physicality specific enough to make them two separate people. And Vikander, somehow only halfway through the biggest breakout year of any actor in a decade, adds another great performance to her sterling resume. An early, ham-fisted commentary on art’s predominantly male gaze (one The Danish Girl itself dips in and out of) is salvaged thanks to Vikander’s seriocomic delivery.
These are two fine young actors to watch, and both are capable of much more than The Danish Girl requires of then. There’s a presumptuousness to the way Hooper shoots many of the (again, rather lovely) Copenhagen landscapes, or constantly frames his actors in doorways and windows. Given the artistic milieu, trying to make every shot of your movie worthy of hanging in an art gallery is understandable. But by the end of The Danish Girl, when Hooper is giving Redmayne an unbroken emotional breakdown glory shot of the kind that won Anne Hathaway an Oscar for Les Misérables, you’re not watching Lili or Gerda’s movie, but someone else’s.
The aesthetics and performances of The Danish Girl are powerful, but don’t always come off as being in service of the artists they’re meant to capture.