It's quite easy to look at The Danish Girl and scoff, "Oh great, another Eddie Redmayne awards cash-in."
The recipient of last year's Academy Award for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne once again aims for such great heights as Einar Wegener, a 1920s painter in Denmark who discovers that he's actually a woman. Cue the scoff. Not only does such a role put you at the top of the Oscar charts before filming even begins, it's also a timely—and touchy—subject that Hollywood often only dips a toe into for fear of offending or "doing it wrong."
It's no surprise, then, that the director is Tom Hooper; his movies are clinically maudlin and aimed at the lowest of the highest-common denominator. He'll take a perfectly good yarn about a stuttering monarch and dress it up in the fanciest attire, hitting a home run with middle-aged white people who only go to the movies three times a year and eliciting a shrug from everyone else.
Unfortunately, that same kind of detriment could also be lodged with The Danish Girl. Fortunately, its stars do all the necessary heavy lifting to take a great story told poorly and make it something worth seeing.
The movie begins in Denmark, where the married painters live and work, but moves throughout Europe as Einar tries to ignore the truth in order to save his marriage, his career, and his sanity. He finally ends up in Germany, where a sympathetic doctor is willing to swap his gender surgically and bring him some measure of the peace he longs for.
Despite all that, I don’t think this is the back-to-back victory that most critics were predicting early in 2015: Redmayne is captivating as both Einar and Lili, but Hooper doesn’t seem sure of what to do with him. Is he a woman stuck in a man’s body, desperate to get free? Has this desire driven him mad, or at least created a distinct second personality that battles for control?
I am certain that, for many transgender people, it can be all of the above. But a movie can’t contain all the nuances of real life; Redmayne’s Einar is distraught but never unhinged, his Lili is a relief but also a hindrance. You want to applaud him for making it all work, but you also wonder if it’s too much. And also not enough; perhaps the era and the Wegener’s upper-class lifestyle made violent outbursts of emotion totally unacceptable, but a constant series of slight tonal shifts doesn’t pack the impact of a massive one.
So Hooper turns to Alicia Vikander, who was phenomenal in Ex Machina earlier in the year, to explore how Einar’s feminine desires invade and ultimately dissipate their marriage. Vikander’s Gerda is a free spirit whose initial silliness seemingly bumps Einar down the path to his new life as Lili; she tries to cope as best she can, holding her end of the marriage together while knowing what’ll happen if Lili becomes the new reality. I’ve heard complaints that Hooper has created another “queer [or] trans film that [is] actually about straight people” and I concur that there was more that could’ve been done on that front, but the idea of an artistic, open-minded woman who embraces her husband’s choices until there’s nothing left to embrace is compelling.
Yet therein lies another issue with The Danish Girl; it’s initially implied, although slightly redacted as we press forward, that Einar’s first exposure to wearing his wife’s clothing unlocks a previously dormant side of himself that can’t be put back. Again, I’m sure there was a life-altering moment in the life of Einar Wegener which led to the realization that Lili Elbe was his true identity, but Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon aren’t particularly subtle on that front.
Luckily, we then shift to Paris, where Einar struggles to repress Lili while his wife achieves an unexpected amount of fame for a series of Lili-themed paintings. An old friend (Matthias Schoenaerts) turns up to help Einar and vaguely seduce Gerda, but it’s clear that Einar causes pain while Lili brings happiness.
This is where Redmayne shines; one scene where he suffers a visible breakdown after surprising guests as Lili and hopefully follows it up with “I don’t think anyone noticed” is right in Hooper’s wheelhouse. It’s a mix of tension-puncturing laughter and vocal, willful desire, definitive without purposely reaching for strong emotions.
But nothing else—Coxon’s script, Alexandre Desplat’s score, supporting turns from Amber Heard and Ben Whishaw—stands out. It’s a very relevant time to tell the tale of the first-ever male to female sex reassignment surgery, but much like Dallas Buyers Club several years ago, you wish this kind of important story was told by someone who wanted to take it all the way.