The Danish Girl (2015)
Directed by Tom Hooper.
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Adrian Schiller, Ben Whishaw and Matthias Schoenaerts.
The remarkable love story inspired by the lives of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.
I hardly knew anything going into The Danish Girl. I hadn’t seen the trailer, I hadn’t read the synopsis. The poster was the only marketing I’d experienced, from which all I had learnt was that the lead actress was FIT!
Well, having now seen the film, colour me sexually confused.
The Danish Girl is based on the world’s first known recipient of sex reassignment surgery. That’s where the male parts are removed, a vagina constructed in their place and every man reading this crosses their legs and sharply inhales.
Looking back on his recent career, it’s easy to see why director Tom Hooper chose to tell this story. The King’s Speech, Les Miserables and The Danish Girl are all films about characters wanting to make their internal conflicts external. King George’s inner voice. Jean Valjean’s guilt. And now, 1920s landscape painter Einar Wegener’s female identification.
Looking at those movies, you might dismiss Hooper as a ‘Hollywood Drama’ director – Oscar baiting with paint-by-numbers schmaltz. There’s an element of truth there, but you’d be ignoring what makes him a true auteur. Here are just three examples:
1) Visuals. Hooper has an incredibly striking visual style, predominantly switching between two types of shot. There are his deeply focused long shots where actors are dwarfed in the frame, often off-centre, sometimes made tiny in the corner of the image. Then there are close-ups so shallow that the blur begins near the actor’s ear. The real trick is that this same dynamic – Far Away vs Close – is mirrored in Hooper’s stories: External vs Internal.
2) Sound Design. The garbling of marbles in The King’s Speech, the on-set music of Les Miserables; Hooper takes particular care of sound to accentuate these intimate close-ups. You can hear every swallow, every time lips part when someone tries to speak but stops just before. It’s like hearing the creak of a piano peddle at a solo concerto. It draws you in further.
3) Direction of Actors. Hooper consistently churns out Best Actor Oscar nominees and winners. The Danish Girl is no different.
The acting here, though, is a loaded affair. Poor Alicia. No-one can compete with a gender-confused guy in drag. For me, her Gerda Wegener is the film’s emotional core. Her performance is superb, and I’m not saying that just because she takes her top off (which she totally does).
Sadly, not many people will be talking about her. They’ll be talking about Eddie Redmayne in a dress. Nobody remembers how good Tom Cruise is in Rain Main. Dustin Hoffman had the Autism card. The transgender hand is just as powerful; and, consequently, is also the way you tell them apart from other women.
That’s not to say Redmayne isn’t also terrific. He has to be. Vikander is the workhorse performance, admirable in her understatement, but Redmayne dazzles in the main event. He disappears into Lili (the name Einar gives his female identity); he becomes Lili. To forget you’re watching Redmayne is one thing. To forget you’re watching a man is something else entirely.
That’s two years in a row with transformative performances. Two biopics, both minority roles (disabled [Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything] and transgender). It’s almost as though Redmayne has a Best Actor Oscar attack plan. Expect Leo to start sending out copies of Jupiter Ascending in retaliation.
Why, then – with such great performances and direction – does The Danish Girl rarely rise above average melodrama?
Lili’s struggle is considerable, but the depths of despair are never reached. This is a very ‘safe’ melodrama. There’s none of the cynicism of Requiem for a Dream; none of the isolation of Dallas Buyers Club. Pretty much all of Lili’s friends support her. Life isn’t that hard besides the (admittedly very significant) fact she was born as the wrong gender. I wanted everything to get worse and worse. The film wanted everything to stay at a certain level of mild peril.
Coupled with actual lines of dialogue like: “no, leave it…let it fly” when Gerda’s scarf is blown away by the wind, the film roots itself firmly in a very mumsy style of drama.
But if you like that kind of melodrama, this will be perfect for you. It’s just not my cup of tea. There’s too much sugar in it. And I haven’t had sugar in my tea since 1982.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★