This Working Title production, directed by Tom Hooper and based on the novel by David Ebershoff, is an eminenlty tasteful drama that brings the story of Lili Elbe – one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery in 1930 – to the big screen. Eddie Redmayne stars as Einar Wegener, the Danish artist who transitioned and took the new name Lili, and he is joined here by Alicia Vikander (as Gerda, a fellow painter and Einar’s wife), Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch and Matthias Schoenaerts. All five have recently featured in other impressively-designed period dramas that shared, I imagine, similar target audiences, and the casting can perhaps be seen as indicative that the production company has played it a little too safe. Given that both the lead and the director have won Oscars in recent years, The Danish Girl is the kind of film that appears tailor-made for awards season, and it will attract plenty of cynicism and scorn from critics as a result of its failure to measure up. Redmayne’s performance is so attention-grabbing there’s no guessing how many times it’ll be referred to as ‘Oscar bait’ between the film’s release and the ceremony in question; there are times when both The Danish Girl and its lead actor threaten to live up to such lofty ambitions, though I should temper any expectation by pointing out there are just as many times when they do not.
The screenplay by Lucinda Coxon functions as a love story, first and foremost, and the pioneering gender reassignment operations are sadly a secondary concern. It’s notable that Vikander shares as much screen time as Redmayne, and the writer and director have plenty of interest in Gerda’s state of mind and perspective on Einar’s self-identification as a woman, rather than solely concentrating on Einar’s point-of-view and feelings. Coxon uses their artistic careers as a way of introducing the viewer to their relationship: at the beginning of the film landscape painter Einar is already successful and lauded in Denmark, with a burgeoning international reputation; Gerda’s own portraiture is deemed unfashionable. When Einar dresses as Lili at home and in public (pretending to be Einar’s female cousin) Gerda is initially amused, and later shows understanding and compassion as Einar’s desire to permanently transition becomes apparent. She (Gerda) also decides to use Lili as a subject for her own work, gaining greater recognition in the art world as a result; thus Gerda becomes known in bohemian circles in Paris, but Einar, who gradually spends more and more time dressed as Lili, becomes a near-recluse until learning of the supposedly-untested surgery by German doctor Hans Warnekros (Koch).
Redmayne delivers a performance that can obviously be likened to his Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory Of Everything. It’s very technical, and once again there’s an emphasis on physical contortion and gesture, but here it occasionally feels too mannered. Whether that’s the actor’s fault or Hooper’s is up for debate, but either way I found myself quickly tiring of all the lip-quivering and mimicking of feminine poses, even if it is designed to show Einar/Lili’s discomfort in a male body, as well as the pre-operation process of becoming a woman. However just at the point I’d decided that Redmayne is incapable of dialling it down a notch or ten – such is his desire to fill every single scene with Acting, darling – I started noticing his mannerisms less and less: the more time he spends on screen as Lili the better he becomes, which is fitting seeing as Einar gradually gives way to Lili; he’s taken a knocking in some quarters but I like the way his performance changes here, and barring a couple of scenes near the end I ended up enjoying it. (Without wishing to spoil anything Redmayne’s final lines in The Danish Girl will bring back memories of his turn in Jupiter Ascending to anyone who saw it. I don’t think it’s intentional.)
The Danish Girl certainly looks good, or at least it’s successful in achieving a certain aesthetic through its production design and cinematography that’s supposedly synonymous with both good taste and good period drama. There’s a lot of use of shallow depth of field to isolate the main players – Hooper wants you to notice the acting above everything else – and the background colours, precise blocking and repetitive framing bring to mind his earlier work on The King’s Speech. The costumes are exemplary, and there’s a certain fetishisation at play with regard to some of the clothes the actors wear: I noticed many shots of Gerda’s black boots, and there’s even an amusing early scene in which she acts the dominatrix during a portrait sitting, but this isn’t really followed up in any meaningful way. Meanwhile ‘Einar’ repeatedly fondles the wigs, stockings and dresses worn by Lili, which initially seem to re-awaken the long-held feeling that ‘he’ is a woman in a man’s body when he dons them as a stand-in for a female model.
The film has already caused some controversy. Both Ebershoff’s novel and Coxon’s adapted screenplay ignore the fact that Gerda was openly lesbian, a move that some critics have labelled unnecessary. The casting of a cisgender actor in a transgender role was also met with plenty of criticism in print and online when Redmayne was announced. Writing in last month’s issue of Sight & Sound magazine, Vadim Rizov noted that ‘casting a cis actor as a trans character is a disrespectful mockery not far from blackface, marginalises trans performers in general and leverages trans issues and pain to gain awards-season recognition for a cis cast and crew’. However for most of the running time of The Danish Girl the character in question is biologically a man, a point that Rizov acknowledges. Yet this is at the root of my general ambivalence towards Hooper’s film, which I think could have explored the operations Lili Elbe underwent in greater detail (reduced from four to two here, and carried out by one doctor instead of two), and I would have been interested to see more of the character after she transitions. Lili is only biologically a woman for a relatively short period in The Danish Girl, and that to me seems like a cop-out: how typical of an awards-oriented film about a trangender character who transitions from male to female to focus primarily on the character’s time as ‘a man’.
I don’t doubt that Coxon or Hooper had good intentions, but sadly the finished film is patchy and the script is decidedly clunky. I’m sure I wasn’t suppose to laugh, for example, when Gerda’s scarf – previously owned and worn by Lili – flies off in the wind on a cliff-top and Vikander utters the words ‘let it go’. Similarly I don’t think I was supposed to giggle when Gerda, a Dane, utters the English colloquialism ‘toodle-oo’ before leaving the couple’s apartment. Sadly it’s these poorly-judged moments, rather than anything meaningful or poignant, that linger in the mind.
Directed by: Tom Hooper.
Written by: Lucinda Coxon. Based on The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff.
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sebastian Koch.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen.
Editing: Melanie Ann Oliver.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Running Time: 119 minutes.