The Danish Girl – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard
If Caitlyn Jenner has taught us nothing else – and it increasingly looks like this might be the case – we now at least know that it’s possible to broaden one’s horizons enough to include transgender identities, while remaining utterly complacent in all other respects. It would be harsh to damn The Danish Girl – Tom Hooper’s film of David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel – with such faint praise, but it certainly gives Jenner a run for her money in not scaring the horses. Obviously, Hooper’s film need only be judged on its merits as cinema, but as the impeccably mounted production is so slight – and as it has been so aggressively positioned as the capper for a nebulously-defined ‘banner year’ for transgender stories in mainstream media – it is very difficult to detach the film from its historical moment.
That’s a problem for Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon as well, because The Danish Girl’s narrative – a fictionalised account of the life and marriage of Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery – is unable or unwilling to attempt the imaginative leap of presenting its 1920s subject through any frame other than that of present-day self-assurance. Hence, what is intended as a kind of canonisation of Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) and her wife, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), actually ends up stripping their story of dramatic urgency by making it less an account of people entering the unknown, and more a retrospective reassurance that present-day values are preferable to those of a century ago, at least with respect to transgender issues.
Indeed they are – at least in some parts of the world – but it’s not Elbe’s job to affirm this for us. In lieu of Ebershoff’s elegant prose, the film coasts on Hooper’s assiduously tasteful direction. It’s difficult not to be at least partway seduced – or sedated – by the film’s silky craftsmanship, at least up to the point at which Elbe falls victim to what must surely be the most prettified hate crime ever put on screen. Still, Hooper is clearly more comfortable here than he was with the tortuous Les Misérables, and The Danish Girl has the same calm sheen as his 2010 Oscar magnet The King’s Speech.
The main purpose of The Danish Girl, of course, is to swell the awards cabinets of its studio and stars – despite all earnest protestations to consciousness-raising. In this respect, it looks likely to have at least a fair innings. On a technical level it’s hard to fault – with Danny Cohen’s cinematography, particularly, having a lovely, burnished glow. Paco Delgado’s costumes and Eve Stewart’s art direction, meanwhile, are every bit as attractive as one would hope for, given the subject and setting.
The performances, however, are a thornier issue. The detail of Redmayne’s portrayal is certainly impressive – but his minutely choreographed turn seems on some level an active contradiction of Elbe’s sense of dislocation from her (pre-transition) body. It’s ultimately a rather self-regarding performance, the ‘spectacle’ of which is dependent on the viewer never forgetting that it’s Redmayne on screen – it’s a kind of ultra-rarefied stunt. Vikander is more genuinely compelling. There’s a cool intelligence to the Swedish actress that, this year alone, made Ex Machina seem like a better film than it was, and brought some kind of dimensionality to a pouting tagalong role in The Man from UNCLE. Here, her gravity commands the attention even in a less showy part – next to Redmayne, she’s an intriguing study in doing more with less. Elsewhere, Matthias Schoenaerts looks rugged, there’s a hammy cameo from Amber Heard, and Ben Whishaw takes his tremulous sensitivity for another walk around the block.
Ultimately, the film The Danish Girl most closely resembles is last year’s equally handsome, equally transparent Alan Turning biopic, The Imitation Game. As a Sunday afternoon’s entertainment, there’s certainly nothing wrong with Hooper’s film, but to be taken as anything more substantial, The Danish Girl would have to look a lot harder at both the time in which it is set, and the time from which it emerges. On those terms, it’s a missed opportunity – and no small one, at that. Fortunately, there is another transgender-themed film with a pair of Oscar-worthy performances doing the rounds right now. It’s called Tangerine, and as well as featuring actual transgendered performers, it has an urgency and empathy that makes The Danish Girl seem very staid indeed.