“Is there something you’d like to tell me?
‘Is there something you’d like to know'”
Though it is the striking image of Eddie Redmayne as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe that dominates the publicity for this film, it is actually Alicia Vikander who emerges as the star of The Danish Girl. As Gerda Wegener, a mildly successful painter in mid-1920s Copenhagen, her emotional journey as a woman coming to terms with her husband’s Einar’s realisation that she’s a transgender woman offers the film’s most fully rounded character and in Vikander’s hands, a sense of raw, unpredictable emotion that is gorgeous to watch as the very limits of her tolerance and understanding are tested.
After a year where transgender issues came to the fore, it seems only natural that a film about Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery, should be an apparent front-runner for this year’s award season. At the same time though, one can’t help but wish that Tom Hooper’s film hadn’t been made with two eyes fixed on the Academy Awards. His glossy and ultimately quite superficial approach – based on David Ebershoff’s novel which is a fictionalised version of Lili’s life – thus feels like a missed opportunity, as artificial an image as Caitlyn Jenner’s Annie Leibovitz-assisted cover.
This isn’t to deny some sterling work from Redmayne as the questioning Einar, first innocuously placed into stockings as a replacement model for his wife then progressing into sexual experimentation in a happy marriage, to creating a female persona – Lili – at his wife’s instigation, in which he feels increasingly comfortable, ultimately to the point of no return. Redmayne is at his best when developing Lili’s demeanour and physical behaviour, observing woman around him and adopting mannerisms to flesh out the personality so long denied to her.
His Lili suffers a little from not having a strong supporting character to bounce off aside from Gerda though. Ben Whishaw as a willing suitor is given little to do, Sebastian Koch (recently very good as Otto in the latest series of Homeland) only a tad more as his surgeon. By contrast, Matthias Schoenaerts’ Hans, though an old friend of Einar’s, connects beautifully with Vikander’s intensity, offering the ideal counterbalance to Gerda’s turmoil as her professional life takes off unexpectedly. You can also spot Henry Pettigrew, Nancy Crane, a saucy Nicola Sloane and Issy van Randwyck in blink and miss ‘em cameos.
But Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay just doesn’t delve deeply enough below the surface and Hooper seems too content to just show us the physical transformation of Lili. Too many simpering looks and fluttered eyelashes thus undermine the gravitas of the story as it winds to the possibilities of groundbreaking surgery and Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful but overinsistent score robs the film of any subtlety that might have remained. Adding in the remove from reality that the source material provides, one is – unsurprisingly – left with a sanitised Hollywood version of not just Lili’s life but trans issues at large.