Can a movie be beautifully shot, well-cast, and powerfully acted? It can do all the technical things without touching your emotions. Is it capable of transporting you without changing your mind? This is the dilemma with “The Danish Girl.”
He’s telling the story about Einar Wegener ( Eddie Redmayne), who was almost a century ago the first person to have sexual reassignment. Hooper’s new film is as tasteful and controlled as his Oscar-winning film “The King’s Speech” (and “Les Miserables”), It’s easier to love than admire. Maybe that is intentional. Perhaps. Maybe. In adapting Lucinda Coxon’s script, which is based on David Ebershoff’s novel about the 1920s Danish landscape artist–Hooper hopes to reach as wide an audience as possible by presenting such challenging material in the form of a lush prestige image.
Perhaps the idea is that people will be more inclined to see a movie featuring a transgender person if it’s offered as awards bait. To use an apt phrase, ” Tangerine ” would be a pejorative, but appropriate, then a little indie like ” Tangerine .” These movies, along with the award-winning TV series “Transparent” and the well-documented story of Caitlyn Jenner, have made transgender people’s struggles part of the dialogue and consciousness this year. The timing of “The Danish Girl”, while it may appear zeitgeisty, and may seem cynical at the surface, is clear that the heart is right there.
The Danish Girl, however, is more appealing to the head than the heart. There is some stunning imagery that will grab your attention, including tutus hanging behind the ballet, lit from below like tulle jellyfish, or the crisp symmetry and immaculately identical row houses shot widescreen. In a rare moment of daring, Einar visits a stripper to imitate her moves and they end up dancing through the glass. There are many images that are simple and obvious in their symbolism. Einar is seen with Gerda (Alicia Viklander), a sheet between them at bedtime. A scarf blowing in the wind, as Alexandre Desplat’s score soars with.
While “Tangerine” may seem daunting, Sean Baker’s movie is about two trash-talking transgender women who swarm the streets of Hollywood on Christmas Eve star first-time actresses. It was entirely shot on an iPhone. It’s actually the more accessible film of the two. It has an immediacy, vibrancy, and a real sense of emotional connection that “The Danish Girl” lacks.
This is no fault of the film’s stars, Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, who both give deeply committed performances–although one is stronger than the other. Redmayne is a master of transformation and his performance as Stephen Hawking in last year’s ” The Theory of Everything” earned him the Academy Award for best actor. He plays a real-life character who experiences a physical transformation that causes strain on his marriage. This forces him and his partner to reexamine their relationship, even though it is clear that they love each other.
Hooper, who is accompanied by Danny Cohen as his cinematographer, basks in Redmayne’s androgyny while Einar transforms into Lili. (Those cheekbones! Those lips! Those long, elegant limbs!) Redmayne’s Jazz Age costume design by Paco Delgado is simply stunning, not only for him but for the entire cast. The film treats this complicated figure in a superficial way. Despite her physical danger and social stigma, we don’t know what Einar did to make Lili. The character is merely a collection of proclamations and mannerisms. Although she was courageous, understanding the root and depth of her bravery would have allowed her to feel more than polite appreciation.
Vikander’s story as Einar’s wife Gerda is truly fascinating. She was a fellow painter and struggled to be taken seriously until she asked Einar to pose for a portrait. This gives her her first glimpse at his feminine side. While Einar is the one who undergoes physical changes, Gerda has a more compelling emotional story. It’s a difficult situation for her to have to be the rock, but also adapt to changing situations. This gives her more chances for shading.
She accepts Einar’s lingerie wearing under his suits at first and is even a little bit enthused by it. Later, playing dress-up at home inspires them to spend lavish evenings with their friends in Copenhagen. As it becomes clearer that “Lili”, isn’t just a character, but an expression of Einar herself, Gerda must confront the reality that all she knows is safe and true is falling apart beneath her.
Her career as a portrait painter is also flourishing, with Lili as her muse. They add to the confusion when old friends (Ben Whishaw and Matthias Schoenaerts), join the fray to offer support in many forms.
Vikander has been on a roll in two films this year, the stunning ” ex Machina” as well as the glossy romp “The man from U.N.C.L.E.” She makes every moment of her character’s journey relatable with great nuance. From her optimism and strength to her loneliness and confusion, she does it all with great nuance. She has a beautiful delicacy, but she also exudes a directness that is equally attractive.
Redmayne’s character is the title. He underwent a transformation to match his insides. Vikander could be the true star of the film.
Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe
Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener
Amber Heard as Ulla
Matthias Schoenaerts as Hans Axgil
Ben Whishaw as Henrik
Emerald Fennell as Elsa
Sebastian Koch as Warnekros
Adrian Schiller as Rasmussen