'The Danish Girl'
Well-meaning and tastefully made though it may be, ‘The Danish Girl’ is an unfortunately ornate bit of Oscar fluff coasting by on timely themes rather than heart or innovation. That’s not too surprising given that the filmmaker responsible is Tom Hooper (‘The King’s Speech’, ‘Les Miserables’), the reigning champ of Oscar bait now that Stephen Daldry has toned things down.
It’s not a horrible movie and will likely win over undemanding viewers susceptible to the charms of easy prestige cheese. However, it’s also not particularly deserving of the nominations and attention inevitably coming its way, despite a pair of impressive central performances.
Eddie Redmayne stars as Einar Wegener, a Danish artist of note in his day who’s now far more remembered as an early icon of the transgender community. He painted landscapes from his troubled youth to commercial success and lived in a loving marriage with Gerda (Alicia Vikander), an artist herself. Gerda struggled far more to get attention, painting portraits for hire with little interest from galleries. One day, she talked Einar into wearing a pair of stockings and shoes to complete her most recent assignment, which instantly awoke a forgotten part of Einar’s past. He began dressing in women’s clothing and assumed the name Lili. It started as a private game between the couple, but then gradually Einar started going out in public as Lili, and soon he abandoned being Einar at all. He always was a woman, which lead to accusations of insanity as well as a series of successful portraits by Gerda that launched her career. Eventually, Lili found a doctor willing to perform the first ever sex change operation, which is why Einar/Lili remains such a famous figure.
So, this is a costume drama about a transgender pioneer, based on the diary she kept that has become something of a sacred text. We’re told this directly in the closing text scroll, because Hooper wants to make sure that no one in the audience underestimates his film’s importance. The trouble is that despite being based on such intriguing and underexplored subject matter, nothing about ‘The Danish Girl’ feels remotely fresh or even dramatic. The tale is told through inertly pretty beauty shots with a languid pace that picks up only for bursts of melodrama.
While there’s nothing wrong with melodrama when that style is embraced, the movie doesn’t dare stretch into oversized emotion as stylistic flourishes. It’s far too quiet than that, instead hoping to force audiences into embracing the movie’s magnificence through a collection of hushed conversations between characters discussing how important everything is. There’s very little sense of inner life in the characters. They’re merely pawns for Hooper’s Oscar cause, though the actors do their best to rise above the material.
Despite what you may have seen in ‘Jupiter Ascending’, Redmayne is one of the finest actors of his generation. Even though the movie doesn’t give Einar/Lili much depth, the actor clearly commits beyond what he was given on the page. The way Redmayne comes alive once he’s embraced Lili is touching and his troubles to find acceptance deeply moving. To a certain extent, it’s a stunt role for awards season, but Redmayne finds a way to overcome all that and play his character as humbly human. Even better is Alicia Vikander, capping off a remarkable breakout year with a stunning performance in ‘Ex Machina’ and a delightful lesson in charm school through ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’. Her portrayal of Gerda is one of heartbreaking strength. She’s both a firm figure cutting a path in a world filled with obstacles against women and someone of remarkable warmth and understanding in her support of Einar/Lili’s transition at the cost of their marriage. Sure, facts are fudged to keep her as a figure of bedside support, but since that keeps Vikander’s remarkable presence on screen longer, it’s hard to complain.
Despite the film’s inertia, Hooper did cast wisely in Redmayne and Vikander. They’re two of the best young actors working and rise above their stuffy surroundings to deliver work worth noticing. Whether or not the film containing the duo’s impressive performances is worth the effort of consuming it is a matter of taste. Cheese does sell well around the holidays in both cinematic and edible form. If you’ve got a hankering for a slice of the smelly stuff, you could do worse. However, you could also do far better, so viewer discretion is advised.