TORONTO – Like Einar Wegner”s battle to acknowledge her true self, there is something off about “The Danish Girl.” It”s beautifully made. It features strong performances from leading actors Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. It tackles a subject matter Hollywood has long ignored with a serious and compassionate voice. But, as Tom Hooper”s new drama unspools over its two-hour running time it”s clear something isn”t quite right
The adaption of David Ebershoff”s acclaimed novel chronicles how Einar (Redmayne) transitioned from a married, moderately successful painter in 1920″s Denmark to Lili Elbe, reportedly the first transgender woman to undergo successful sexual reassignment surgery. Moreover, it focuses a good deal of attention on how Lili”s arrival affected her unsuspecting wife Gerda (Vikander). So much so that the story often seems to be more from Gerda”s perspective even if Lili”s journey is fueling the narrative.
When we first meet Einar and Gerda they appear to be a perfectly content couple. Sure, Gerda is frustrated that a prominent art dealer isn”t interested in representing her work, but Einar”s popular landscapes provide them with a comfortable life (even if he seems fixated on repeating the same painting). Privately, Gerda has been working on a large canvas work modeled by her friend Oola (Amber Heard), a ballet dancer and it teases an untapped talent.
One evening Oola has to cancel her sitting so Gerda asks Einar if he”d throw on her tights and shoes so she can continue working on the piece. He hesitates at first, but soon is rolling the hose over his feet and complaining that the shoes probably won”t fit. When Gerda asks him to hold the dress Oola has worn previously a visible sense of intoxication comes over him. Redmayne and Hooper work well here making Einar”s reaction obvious for the audience to recognize, but subtle enough for Gerda to miss. When Oola shows up unexpectedly with a bouquet of flowers she excitingly christens Einar”s new look as “Lily.”
Sometime shortly thereafter, Gerda is having problems convincing Einar to attend a local ball. She makes an unexpected suggestion that perhaps Einar should go as someone else and, before you know it she”s training her husband in how to handle himself as a woman in public (cue the montage). The day of the ball both Gerda and Einar”s “cousin Lili” make their way to the event with few people realizing Lili is not who she seems. Well, except for Oola of course, who is all for this genderbending fun. Eventually, Lili is separated from the other ladies and finds herself being charmed by the captivating Henrik (Ben Whishaw). The handsome gentlemen seems to know something is up, but that doesn”t stop him from taking Lili into a secluded part of the ball and kissing her. Not only does Lili not stop Henrik but Gerda witnesses the embrace and is shocked by her husband”s actions.
This evening is a turning point for the couple. Einar can”t resist the urges to spend more time as Lili even as Gerda insists his new persona disappear. Things get somewhat complicated for Gerda when some renderings and a painting inspired by Lili gain the attention of a French art dealer. Opportunity rules the day as they are quickly off to Paris where they run into Einar”s childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), Einar decides to live as Lili full-time and Gerda becomes increasingly sympathetic to her husband”s plight.
This is not an easy story to tell and Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon make some interesting choices along the way. As in the novel, they portray Einar”s discovery of his feminine self as though it was a door first opened during the sitting for Gerda. When we later discover that wasn”t the case it makes the aforementioned “discovery” scene feel close to a cheat.
If it”s obvious that Lili wants her own life Hans” primary purpose is to fill the open position as Gerda”s new love interest. That”s fine, but Greta seems to resist his polite advances again and again and on one set of stairs after another (and, yes, they are beautifully designed stairwells, but still…).
There is also a disheartening moment that involves the usually impeccable composer Alexandre Desplat. After the elation following Lili”s first public outing, Einar escapes to the local theater where Oola”s troupe performs and its balcony full of beautiful costumes (it”s up to the audience to figure out how he has access). Einar strips himself bare in front of a long mirror and tucks his privates between his legs as he tries to envision himself as a woman. He picks up a long, silk dress and holds it against his body. At this point, Desplat”s score becomes strangely ominous as though something evil is occurring during a scene that should channel Einar”s excitement at attempting to understand her true self. In all seriousness if you are a transgender person watching the film how could the music in this scene not make you uncomfortable?
Considering he won the Academy Award for Best Actor earlier this year for his performance in “The Theory of Everything,” it”s a testament to Redmayne”s talent that he”s actually better this time around. The Brit”s delicate features and angelic face help make Lili”s transformation convincing, but it”s the change beneath the surface that is truly striking. Redmayne plays Lili as she describes herself to Gerda, a completely different person, a Lili who turns into a fully formed woman with barely a hint of affectation. There are no doubt many other actors who would have been willing to play this role, but after you watch Redmayne”s performance in its entirety it”s hard to imagine anyone else who could reach his heights.
Considering Redmayne”s achievement it”s almost shocking that you can argue Vikander gives the more memorable performance. Granted, it feels that she has more screen time in the last third of the picture than Redmayne, but by the end of the film Gerda becomes its emotional center, for better or worse. Vikander is simply rawer than Redmayne and that allows her to sneak a realistic lifeline into Hooper”s formerly staged proceedings.
“The King”s Speech” and “Les Miserables” helmer has shown an inclination to creatively frame his films and that certainly appropriate for a tale that essentially begins on an artist”s canvas. Teaming up with longtime collaborator Danny Cohen, the duo fashion imagery as beautiful as many of Einar and Gerda”s paintings. They are assisted by Eve Stewart”s impressive production design and Paco Delgado”s costumes which avoid fetishizing the period and, smartly, Lili”s new wardrobe. But, perhaps it”s all too pretty.
In an era where transgender stories have earned significant visibility thanks to film and television programs including as “Tangerine” and “Transparent,” celebrated actors such as Laverne Cox and the fact Caitlyn Jenner has become a cultural touchstone, perhaps some grit and grime would have benefited Lili”s story. A year ago this might not have been the case, but in the fall of 2015 “The Danish Girl” needs to be more grounded. It needs to look less pretty and feel more real. That direction might be out of Hooper”s wheelhouse, but it could have been what transformed a good movie into a transcendent one.
“The Danish Girl” opens in limited release on Nov. 27.