With The Danish Girl, it would appear that Tom Hooper, perhaps more than any other current director, has disappointingly decided to fully embrace the position of a dealer in shameless, pandering awards-bait “prestige” cinema, at least David O. Russell had a whole different phase to his career first. Fittingly, I first heard of The Danish Girl around this time last year when reading an article about predicting next year’s Oscar contenders or something similar. Nearly all of the ingredients are there, a period drama based on a true story, involving issues still relevant today, offering an actor a chance to take on a (literally in this case) transformative role. The Danish Girl is the kind of film that all-but screams its importance at your face before you’ve even begun to watch it.
What’s probably the most disappointing aspect about this film turning out to be exactly the kind of bland, awards-bait biopic fodder I feared it would be is that the story being told does sound like it has potential to explore its subject matter of transgender issues below the surface level, something this film singularly fails to do.
The film is loosely inspired by the story of Lili Elbe, a Danish artist in the 1920s who was born Einar Wegener, and later became one of the first known people to have undergone gender reassignment surgery. Reportedly it’s full of inaccuracies about its real subject, but that could be forgiven if it led to a better narrative I suppose.
One of the potential angles the film has to explore is that at the time we first meet Einar (Eddie Redmayne), she appears to be happily married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander), a fellow if less successful artist in Copenhagen. The film doesn’t give us any information to suggest whether Einar had considered her gender dysphoria prior to an overly convenient cinematic moment in which one of Gerda’s female models fails to show up and to save time she asks Einar to pose in her place.
This act spurs Einar to embrace her identity as Lili, initially via temporary public appearances, then gradually progressing to leaving Einar behind, and seeking out a surgeon who can help her at a time when her predicament was considerably less well understood than it is today. The film is just as much about Gerda as it is about Lili, from her initially supportive attitude to the eventual degradation of their marriage. However, the film doesn’t manage to convey the experiences of either character with any depth whatsoever.
We get a number of drearily predictable scenes, as Lili nervously draws the attention of a new admirer (Ben Whishaw), observes and tries to imitate an erotic dancer, gets abused in the street, or pursues a doctor willing to perform the surgery she desires. Meanwhile Gerda falls back in with childhood friend and art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts).
There’s a lot of emphasis on the acting here, and it’s hard to pinpoint what about Redmayne’s performance doesn’t quite work for me, but I think it’s how his over-earnestness contrasts with the pedestrian nature of the script and Hooper’s direction. It’s like he’s trying so hard that it always feels like we’re watching an actor giving a performance, he never seems to truly inhabit the role in a manner which comes across as rather uncomfortable considering the nature of the character. Vikander fares better giving a more straightforward performance as Gerda, and Whishaw and Schoenaerts are always welcome supporting players, even if they’re similarly underserved by the script.
The Danish Girl ultimately tries to go for a big tear-jerker of a conclusion, but the film had completely lost me by this point. This film had an opportunity to explore some new ground in mainstream cinema by telling the story of a transgender pioneer, but no-one’s going to come away from this with any more knowledge of the plight facing trans people. At least we can take some comfort from knowing that by the time I got to see The Danish Girl, it had failed to get a Best Picture or Director nomination, which seemed to be the primary motivator for its existence.