Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, promoted squarely around the hot button conversation of transgender issues, is far more effective as a story of the power of love during a marriage in crisis. Hooper (of The King Speech and Les Miserables) again is gifted with a strong field of actors to inhabit his heightened emotional vision, but with a presentation that never connects beneath the surface of pain on display, these typically interesting actors are stuck repeating the same notes over much of the film’s two hours.
One of the first documented trans women to undergo genital reassignment surgery, Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) was a successful landscape artist when she presented as male and married to portrait artist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). As Lili began her transition, Gerda’s profile began to raise as Lili became her muse – Lili fell out of touch and became disinterested with her craft. Particulars of The Danish Girl differ from history for the women, as Lucinda Coxon’s script is more focused on love’s sustainability through personal crisis. Coxon and Hooper struggle to to find multiple points of entry into the subject, as the whole middle section is structured of scenes repeating the same story beats without elevating the conflict or raising the stakes. Perhaps the hyper-stylized and conceptual Hooper is just a poor fit for a story as nuanced as this – for a movie about such a charged human issue and where characters spend the majority in some tearful state, shouldn’t the audience actually feel something?
The overall film becomes a soggy slog occasionally sparked by its two leads. Redmayne’s performance is always a promise of what it could have been had he been given more to work with – the film is a bit shocking in its lack of complexity portraying gender dysphoria. Some have complained that his work is an amalgam of whispers, tears, and shy tics (the side glances do get a bit annoying), but the script calls for him to do little else and never finds anything beyond Lili’s depression for Redmayne to explore. Alternately, Vikander’s Gerda is spunky and connected. With the script more intrigued by Gerda’s response to Lili’s transition than Lili’s experience within it, Vikander crafts a more rounded protagonist before she is required to just cry and repeat the same conversation ad nauseam. The subject and the actors certainly deserve an approach with more ambition and insight.
The film is at its best when tuned in to the ferocious connection between the two – both in lovemaking and post-surgery scenes, the chemistry between Redmayne and Vikander is intuitive and sensual. Design elements fell disconnected, as if constructed from different films, particularly Alexandre Desplat’s score that treats Lili’s moments of discovery as if she was a freak or deviant. Cinematographer Danny Cohen (whose frequent Hooper collaboration has a penchant for pushing actors to the edge of the frame that isn’t as pronounced here) and production designer Eve Stewart are constantly at odds, filling the frame with too much clutter that only distances us from Lili and Gerda’s turmoil.
If you want a recent trans story, you’d be better suited seeking out Tangerine or Amazon’s Transparent. The Danish Girl is instead an uncomplex marital study that has smart actors reaching for heights that the film hinders with repetitive, underdeveloped scenes. Thank goodness for the moments that land, but this isn’t the project that will be remembered in the filmographies of future mega-talents Vikander and Redmayne.