The Danish Girl – Movie Review
Rating: B- (Okay)
When one thinks of the stereotypical Oscar picture, The Danish Girl is exactly the sort of film they imagine. It’s a professionally and technically well made film, but it’s almost a hollow attempt at portraying this real-life story. It feels a lot like a “eat your vegetables” movie, where there’s an important message on display but doesn’t quite reach beyond that. There is even the transformative lead performance with the actor going through a physical change to embody the role. The story of Lili Elbe, the first transgender, certainly deserves to be told, but director Tom Hooper tells it in a too glossy and neatly packaged manner.
When hearing the title The Danish Girl, the first instinct is to assume it’s referring to Lili Elbe. However, it’s also a reference to Lili’s wife Gerda. A lot of the more interesting parts actually revolve around her facing her husband becoming a new person. Alicia Vikander gives a strongly subtle performance with the right level of emotion, but never going too far. Gerda is confused and at times, unsure of what to make of Einar discovering his feminine side. Is it somehow her fault? Did she play a role in unleashing this hidden aspect of his persona? These are questions that run through her mind and Vikander portrays that nicely. The screenplay also delves into the medical treatments of the time and how unprepared they were for new personality types at the turn of the century, but like everything else in the script, it’s mostly surface level.
That’s also an apt way to describe Eddie Redmayne’s performance. He showed his skill at transformative acting in The Theory of Everything and it mostly worked because of how he showed the effects of Stephen Hawking’s disability slowly taking over. In The Danish Girl, Redmayne mainly puts on a dress and changes his voice, but it’s not completely convincing. Even after the procedure, we still see Redmayne under the makeup and costumes. That also applies to Tom Hooper’s direction, which takes a very safe approach to the material. The closest the film gets to a powerful reaction are scenes when Einar is admiring himself in the mirror, but even those portions constantly beat the symbolism over the viewer’s head, not helped by Alexandre Desplat’s pulsating string instruments playing over the soundtrack. As such, Einar nor Lili become interesting characters and it is thus understandable why so much screen time is given to his/her far more strongly written spouse.
The Danish Girl is definitely a handsomely mounted production. The production designers transport the audience back to early 20th century Copenhagen, though almost everyone having British accents could make it easy to forget the setting. Danny Cohen’s cinematography evokes the time period well and he avoids a lot of the odd camera angles found in Tom Hooper’s previous work. Since the film is about a painter, it’s fitting that the film almost looks like a completed canvas. The script may be empty and at times dull, but Hooper and his team do know how to direct our eyes to the proper vista.
The Danish Girl is technically well-made, but an important story like this one deserves a stronger treatment, especially when the transgender movement is very topical right now. Aside from being the first transgender, the film doesn’t give a real indication as to why Lili Elbe’s life has the makings of a biographical motion picture. Tom Hooper’s direction is so stale and empty, one is constantly thinking of the awards this movie is clearly hoping to win. If the viewer is too distracted thinking about how an outside committee will applaud a movie, it takes away from the viewing experience. There’s possibly a great biopic hidden underneath here, but it’s difficult to find behind all of the gold it’s chasing.