REVIEW: The Danish Girl

January 1, 2016

Director: Tom Hooper
Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts
Runtime: 119 Minutes




The Danish Girl comes around at a point in which the politics and controversy surrounding the nature of transgender individuals have been at a high point of public discussion. Based on the fictionalized retelling of the life of Danish artist Lili Elbe’s efforts to successfully be recognised as a woman, it’s a story worth telling in an age where the kinds of prejudices that were once experienced by these men and women have been slowly falling away in place of a more accepting perspective on the malleability of gender expectation.


The controversies surrounding the casting of Redmayne in the leading role aren’t to be found in the final product, as this very thoroughly depicts the transformation of a man into a woman, and the retroactive choice to have someone already a recipient of the surgery would only give things a murkier comprehension.


Starting at the moment in adulthood of Lili Elbe’s awakening in Einar, much of the exposition deals with the fact that this is something that simply doesn’t happen to someone overnight, and is, in fact, a part of a much larger internal war that Einar has been fighting with himself for many years. The display of gender specificity is an obvious thematic construct from the outset, having both Einar and his partner, Gerda Wegener (Vikander), as collaborative painters; himself perfecting the arrangement of his own landscape images over and over again in a retrospective effort to refine himself, while Gerda occupies herself with the gaze and form of people that slowly has Lili as a persona infest and prosper within own work. Lili’s journey to reality takes up much of the film's runtime, and it’s the strong interactions and conflicts brought out between the two of them is where its strongest strides are placed.


It's unsurprising that Redmayne is good as far as the physical performance goes, a certainly a beautiful looking person under either gaze, but the presentation of Lili’s femininity through the eyes of Einar is a focal point of the film’s mainstream delivery. Its quintessential feminine attributes in their fullest and occasionally gaudiest forms. There’s the context of its era that informs this choice, of course, but taking into account its semi-fictitious origins there’s still something rather emotionally stale about the way in which Redmayne carries himself. But greater praise should be given to Alicia Vikander as his onscreen partner, who does much of the more subdued emotional weightlifting than her overwrought co-star. A far more vigorous and rich performance that's on show allows her more boisterous tendencies to flourish in parallel to her husband’s more traditionalist feminine stature.


Tom Hooper’s continued auteurist trait of using wide-angle close-ups to convey the disparity of human emotion is certainly a choice that works far better here than it did in Les Misérables, and the costume design by Spain’s Paco Delagado is lavish yet agreeably bleached. The work of frequent collaborator Danny Cohen is genuinely great (in particular in the opening act), and brings some wonderful texture to some of the calmest moments of the screenplay – which, sadly, isn’t as up to scratch as the films technical distinction. Maybe a bolder deviation from the source material would have allowed Lucinda Coxon to flesh out the dimensions of its characters slightly more than is simply dealt with scene by scene, like the undernourished Wishaw and the bewildering placement of Schoenaerts character in the final act. 


There’s a persistent tonal issue that eats away at the film’s straight-faced dramatic heart, such as a baffling montage sequence in which Einar receives different medical evaluations, where it’s difficult to tell whether their intention is to play it for laughs or genuine discomfort.


The moments that need to be touching are done so well through the potency of Redmayne and Vikander’s chemistry, and the sadder moments of its climactic sequences are dealt with decently, if not as powerfully or conclusively as they should probably feel – and the saccharinely bookish quality of its final scene feels like a rather choppy finish to the whole thing.


The good that’s there is enough to allow this a firm recommendation for awards season as there are some terrific labours on show (including an always reliable score from Desplat), but the safe fluff that it tangles with over its blown up runtime leaves it as one of the least memorable efforts of Hooper’s recent career.


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