The Transgender Drama ‘The Danish Girl’ Has More On Its Mind Than Courting Oscars

If the films of Tom Hooper didn’t keep racking up all those pesky Oscar nominations, he might merely be another middling filmmaker, pumping out heavily scare-quoted “prestige” pictures with just enough artistic pomp to win over middlebrow audiences. But because the Academy has informally crowned Hooper the new prince of mainstream arthouse film, the resounding okay-ness of The King’s Speech and Les Miserables has, for some, become a symbol of everything wrong with Hollywood filmmaking and awards season in specific. Working in the period biopic and musical forms, two of the most time-tested awards-friendly genres, he prettifies his surfaces without giving too much thought to what lies beneath. His high-gloss historical pictures and their robust grosses have become an emblem of the wrongful elevation of that which is familiar and tame over more challenging fare.

But sitting down in the theater for his latest effort The Danish Girl, the popularity of Hooper’s films feels pretty natural. When Hooper’s at his best — that is, tamping down his own directorial presence and ceding the spotlight to stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander — he’s able to deliver potent jabs of poignancy. Hooper’s soapiest film to date has real ideas on its mind, thoughts about the quiet dignity of marital sacrifice and how identity, once realized, cannot be denied. Thanks to an awards-season push, The Danish Girl arrives in theaters resplendent in the priciest of gowns with a high-society escort on her arm, but once midnight strikes and the soirée is over, what’s left is a competent drama with a sanitized, but vital social import.

Most of the ruckus heretofore raised over The Danish Girl hasn’t revolved around accusations of mediocrity toward Hooper, however. The Danish Girl chronicles the life and times of Lili Elbe (née Einar Wegener), a transgender woman and the first person to receive gender confirmation surgery on record. Eddie Redmayne, a cisgender man (that is, born with body parts that correspond to the gender assigned at birth), plays Elbe in the film both pre- and post-transition. Advocates have cried foul at the film’s choice to hand one of the few visible transgender roles in mainstream cinema to an actor that is not himself trans, leaving the underemployed transgender actors of Hollywood out in the cold. The thorny ethics surrounding matters of casting have been debated elsewhere, and will surely continue to be debated in the coming weeks, but what’s for certain at the moment is that Redmayne has brought his weepie A-game to the proceedings.

He and Vikander make for a winning couple, gently guiding the film through the necessarily intimate process of Lili’s coming to terms with her own identity. Both Einar and wife Gerda (Vikander) make a living peddling their art, and Gerda unknowingly awakens an awareness of her spouse’s latent gender identity by requesting he pose as a woman for her paintings. They giggle when they nickname this alter ego Lili, but as this alter ego elbows her way out of Einar’s subconscious and becomes real, Gerda faces a complex challenge. Lili’s struggle to come into her own and find the means of altering her physical makeup to match her sense of self is rightfully the central pillar of the film, but Gerda’s difficulty reconciling her love for the human being beside her with the loss of her lover is just as rich an experience. She has nowhere to direct her confusion or frustration, and while she knows in her heart of hearts that full-throated support of Lili is the only way to go, she can’t help but feel what she feels.

Hooper doesn’t shy away from the particulars of the first curious peerings into the world of transgender life. The film’s most indelible image comes courtesy of Redmayne as he stands before a mirror, admiring his form, penis tucked between his legs; both the actor and director have long since moved past any squeamishness that outsiders to LGBTQ culture all-too-frequently experience. Above all, the prevailing tone of Redmayne’s performance is one of beautiful revelation. Suddenly, his boyhood flirtation with a chum (played as an adult by Matthias Schoenaerts, in a marvelous supporting performance) makes perfect sense. His obsession with stockings, longing glances at women in peep shows, it all suddenly clicks. Hooper may oversimplify by drawing a big red line between Lili and Einar, demarcating them as two discrete people instead of points on a vast fluid spectrum. But witnessing Redmayne slowly accept this literally transformative self-knowledge is a privilege all its own.

For both Lili and The Danish Girl, there’s no distinction between the personal and the political. The film is a work of entertainment reluctantly ushered into statements about Culture Right Now, and Lili was a woman for whom merely living was a revolutionary, defiant act. Independent of their respective cultural contexts, both are sincere, sometimes to a fault, and urgent. Lili had to wait for the world to catch up to her; Hooper’s film isn’t what she was waiting for, but it’s a fine start.