For a period drama set in the 1920s, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl pushes all the right topical buttons. In a year when the word ‘transgender’ has been on the tips of everyone’s tongues thanks to the likes of Caitlin Jenner and Transparent, this lavish dramatization of the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
But while the cinema-going masses are clearly ready for such stories to take centre stage, Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon don’t quite posses Lili’s courage as an overflow of frothy melodrama dilutes this potentially powerful tale.
Taking David Ebershoff’s eponymous novel as a starting point, the film recounts how celebrated Copenhagen artist Einar Wegener discovered the woman he was meant to be when posing as ‘Lili’ for his wife Gerda’s risqué portraits. With the help of a remarkably compassionate Gerda, Einar carefully explores his inner-girl, gradually transitioning as Lili becomes an increasing part of his personality while Einar fades into his past.
Coming so soon after The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne’s transformative powers are once against on full display in an exceptional turn as Einar/Lili. Utilizing his naturally androgynous features, Redmayne sensitively embodies both sides of his character as a confused-but-curious Einar moves from nervous experimenter to confidant member of the opposite sex. Another Oscar nomination surely beckons.
While her role is far less showy, Alicia Vikander is nothing less than entirely captivating, exuding warmth, strength and a twinkling mischief as Gerda, who knows her husband’s transition will slowly erode their marriage yet endeavours to support him anyway. Redmayne and Vikander’s radiant chemistry is genuinely moving, Einar and Gerda’s relationship shot through with all the affection, honesty and frustration of a real married couple.
So why, given the power of the lead performances, does the end result feel achingly emotionless?
At times the film’s considerable beauty overwhelms the drama. Make no mistake, The Danish Girl is visually breath-taking, Hooper conjuring up a rich canvas of windswept landscapes and verdant coastlines that feel as if they could’ve been ripped from Einar’s very own artworks. Yet the director is often guilty of over romanticising the story, with the endless wistful glances and Alexandre Desplat’s tinkling score creating the sense the film’s challenging subject is glamorous and flippant rather than rawly emotive. As such, many of the film’s intended poignant moments lack the necessary emotional wallop.
In truth, The Danish Girl is perhaps too delicate in handling its thought-provoking themes, glossing over any exploration of the swirling emotions of loss and euphoria that must surely come from discovering one’s identity.
It’s a shame because there is a captivating story to be told here, one the world is finally ready to hear if Hooper and Coxon had only been brave enough to tell it. Instead we’ve ended up with a soaring melodrama, beautifully shot and superbly performed, but as thin and frivolous as a pair of blue silk stockings.
Runtime: 119 mins; Genre: Biopic; Released: 1 January 2016;
Director: Tom Hooper; Writers: Lucinda Coxon, David Ebershoff (novel);
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Wishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts
Click here to watch a trailer for The Danish Girl