Eddie Redmayne is unforgettable as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, but Tom Hooper’s painterly film lacks edge and originality.
Eddie Redmayne may be starring as a man named Newt in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, but the British actor has done an excellent job over the past few years of affirming himself as a chameleon: a go-to performer for intensely transformative roles. From the dashing romantic lead in 2012’s Les Misérables, Redmayne became Stephen Hawking in last year’s Oscar-winning The Theory of Everything, pocketing the Best Actor trophy with his unsubtle performance. His next step, naturally, was to take on the ultimate actorly challenge: playing a woman.The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper’s assured follow-up to The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, is a painterly account of Einar Wegener’s transition into Lili Elbe in 1920s Copenhagen, and the emotional journey faced by wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) in accepting her husband’s change.
Considering how topical the subject matter of The Danish Girl is (2015 was a historic year for the acceptance of transgender people in the media), it’s surprising just what an old-fashioned film Hooper has made. The impressive production and costume design of his previous features remains, but there is nothing to compliment the significantly “edgier” story of The Danish Girl. This is not the tale of a stammering monarch nor a French workers’ rebellion, but of a brave individual risking their life almost a century ago for a personal fulfilment not truly understood by society until now.
In this sense, Redmayne is far ahead of everyone else involved. His performance is truly heartbreaking, showing far more soul than he was given room to in The Theory of Everything and showing Einar’s slow, painful journey to becoming Lili with extremely subtle changes in movement and speech. Unfortunately, Vikander’s work is not of the same standard: she is irritatingly self-conscious at the start of the film, unsympathetically arrogant by its end. There are countless actresses who could have inhabited the role brilliantly. Vikander is not one of them. The script is also quite weak: there is little in this film that will likely help the general population to further understand the psychology of a transgender person, and even Joel Schumacher’s Flawless was more successful in presenting a basic, layman’s explanation for a broad cinema audience to appreciate. The Danish Girl, it seems, will neither change attitudes nor reach those who need their attitude changed. With such a famous star and director, it’s unfortunate this opportunity was not used to spread awareness.
Much of The Danish Girl focuses on painting- the inspiration required for and received from the practice- and the film itself is essentially Hooper’s attempt at a watercolour. It’s highly imperfect, but the primary figure of interest- Redmayne’s Lili- is powerful enough to distract from the underwhelming nature of the piece as a whole. No emotion in Hooper’s film runs strong enough to be truly felt: The Danish Girl is rarely tragic, amusing or original enough to be considered a film of great worth.