Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw
This is a good film. It should’ve been amazing, illuminating and transformative.
There must be more to gender dysmorphia than what Eddie Redmayne shows for much of The Danish Girl. Is it simply the desire to touch silky fabrics and pose like girls in 1920s cigarette ads?
There also is more to Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery. The Danish Girl is slow, lacking emotional punch. It’s also all small moments of understated drama cut short by painterly views of Denmark, Dresden, and Paris.
Director Tom Hooper (The Kings Speech, Les Miserables) hasn’t created a monster, but he’s made a ponderous, self-indulgent flick. It feels like it’s shooting for Oscar attention rather than a compelling story. The story is there, buried under camisoles and mood, and it peeks out every so often – in the more daring moments, in the facts of Elbe’s life.
As I watched, I thought of a fancy word for what The Danish Girl is missing: breviloquence. It’s the ability to be compact and graceful at the same time.
Elbe (Redmayne) was born in 1882 as Elnar Wegener, a fairly accomplished landscape painter. He married portrait painter Gerda Gottlieb (Vikander) in 1904. The now well-known story is that Gottlieb would often need a female model, so she’d ask her husband to dress in women’s clothes. He realized he felt more comfortable that way. He started the long transition to understanding that he was a woman trapped in a man’s body.
But there’s more to the story than that. Elnar started going out in public as Lili; the couple said she was his sister. (The movie, for some reason, calls her his cousin.) The professional art world guessed Elnar was Lili, and Gerde’s titillating artwork of her mate – some of it erotic – became wildly popular. Only close friends knew about Elnar’s medical transition; they variously reacted supportive, shocked, and repulsed. The surgery that Elnar opted for was incredibly dangerous, yet somehow he risked his life to gain the body and life of Lili.
Hooper hints at all this but misses the chance to really illustrate it. He instead creates a polite, painterly, impressionistic mood when more bold, concise strokes are called for. Hooper captures the styles and feel of 1920s Europe, but he doesn’t capture Elbe, and he should have.
Vikander well portrays the tortured wife. I’m more conflicted about slight, thin Redmayne’s performance. I felt he was doing this for another Oscar. The last time he transformed, he got into the physicality of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. At times in this flick – like when he is repulsed by his penis – he lets us know what’s going on underneath Elbe’s skin. Most scenes he’s showing affectations – tilting his head coyly, posing, rubbing fabrics. It’s as if he never quite understands Lili, but he’s absolutely intent on playing her.
Again, the larger fault falls to talented director Hooper. He’s made a good film when Elbe’s life should’ve inspired a great one. He may be able to manage his cinematographer and art crew; The Danish Girl has some very evocative shots – they get old as the film wears on. In the performances, the scenes, and the overused interstitial shots, Hooper is missing that breviloquence. It feels as if his and Redmayne’s personalities got in the way of illustrating Elbe’s.