It’s taken a long time for a mainstream film to finally tell the stories of transgender people. Trans characters have certainly existed in mainstream cinema, but outside of independent film, their stories have never been the central focus. That makes ‘The Danish Girl’, the latest movie from director Tom Hooper, a very significant one. Not only does it depict the story of a transgender woman, but looks at the first instance where a human being received an operation to transition them from one gender to another. It’s an enormous amount of pressure for a film to carry, and a necessary one when it takes on the responsibility of a subject so important. Unfortunately, Tom Hooper does not have the best track record when handling complex material, and ‘The Danish Girl’ is certainly no exception.
Beginning in Copenhagen in 1926, the film follows the relationship between artists Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), and how they navigate their marriage as Einar begins his journey of self-discovery to become a woman, Lili Elbe. With Gerda’s support, their journey leads Lili to become the first person to receive sex reassignment surgery at a time where the concept of being transgender was still seen as a mental illness.
The screenplay by Lucinda Coxon is based on the novel by David Ebershoff, itself a fictitious account of the true story of Lili and Gerda. Knowing that this is a true story through a fictitious sense makes sense, because from the ground up, ‘The Danish Girl’ is a surprisingly disingenuous film. It’s dealing with very important material, but it wears this like a large neon sign on its forehead that flashes ‘THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT’ continuously without actually working to ensure this is true. Coxon’s screenplay buckles under the weight of its drama and emotions, rarely rising above melodrama. Lili’s narrative journey moves preposterously fast to begin with, before coming to a grinding halt for the whole middle section of the film. At its heart, the film focuses on the struggle for Gerda and Einar to maintain their marriage as he transitions into Lili, which is a terrific concept and rich in potential, but the screenplay seems to take the drama as inherent and not work for it. You can almost hear the narrative boxes being ticked as you go along.
As a base for a film, it’s not the strongest foundations, all the more damaging because it’s placed in the horribly inept hands of Tom Hooper. ‘The King Speech’ (2010) was wonderful in spite of him, but ‘Les Misérables’ (2012) was a catastrophe, and ‘The Danish Girl’ isn’t far off. He approaches the film in a period tone that is so woefully outdated, maudlin and languid. The cinematography is atrocious, Hooper insisting on putting actors in the bottom of the frame or using that painful fish-eye lens he insists on using willy-nilly for little reason. There’s even a moment where a shot clumsily and noticeably realigns itself mid-shot, and not in an artistically-driven way. The manner with which he approaches the visual journey of Lili is to cut to lots of shots of Eddie Redmayne’s delicate hands running over silk, not at all digging into Lili's deeper psychology. It’s hard to know if this is more Coxon or Hooper’s fault, but ‘The Danish Girl’ is a shockingly shallow film that moves towards no conclusion whatsoever. Sure, it looks nice, Copenhagen and Paris recreated beautifully by Grant Armstrong, Tom Weaving and Paco Delgado, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is lovely, but Hooper once again shows he lacks the concept that pretty visuals are nothing without a soul behind them.
Thank god for Redmayne and Vikander. This isn’t one of Redmayne’s best performances (certainly not as affecting as his Oscar-winning performance as Stephen Hawking in 'The Theory Of Everything'), but he certainly doesn’t do a terrible job. Of course it would have been incredible to see a trans actor play the part, but he clearly takes the role and the task of representing the trans community very seriously, and also somehow gets around the shoddy material and direction he’s being offered. The film belongs to Vikander though. Surprisingly, Coxon’s screenplay offers her more to work with as Gerda than Redmayne as Lili, and yet again, Vikander proves her immense talent and intelligence in a genuinely affecting performance. She can’t quite make the soap-opera dialogue work, but her chemistry with Redmayne is very strong. Amber Heard also does terrific work as Gerda’s friend Ulla, wonderfully feisty and engaging, and Ben Whishaw brings a surprising amount of sensitivity as Henrik, a potential love interest for Lili, but Matthias Schoenaerts is totally at sea as Hans Axgil, Einar’s childhood friend and new love interest for Gerda (in a subplot that was so idiotic I audibly groaned in the cinema).
Lili’s narrative journey moves preposterously fast to begin with, before coming to a grinding halt for the whole middle section of the film.
There might have been potential in ‘The Danish Girl’, but this awful film squanders that potential and its excellent cast. For a film about one of the most complex and emotionally-charged personal journeys a human being can make, it has very little soul, far too concerned with playing with shallow emotions and languid images. I’ve never been a fan of Tom Hooper’s work, and this film is yet another strike against him in my book. Being released against Todd Hayne’s sublime ‘Carol’ only makes the film look more foolish. This is a story, not just about one trans woman’s journey, but the bravery of transgender people throughout all times and all over the world; any film that takes that on has a huge responsibility to respect that and do it justice. Maybe if ‘The Danish Girl’ hadn’t spent so much time trying to be ‘IMPORTANT’, it might have actually succeeded.