We are fortunate enough to live in a world where studios can green-light prestige pictures with transgender subjects. But, one gets the feeling that, for that to be the case, such films are probably being released into a mostly accepting social environment. And that, maybe, the most interesting and progressive work on this subject is not going to come in the form of awards fodder, but via smaller independent films: because, for all its admirable qualities, The Danish Girl is kind of soft.
Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, a Danish painter living with his wife, Gerda, a fellow artist, in Copenhagen in the 1920s. When one of Gerda’s models can’t make it to a session, she has to call on her husband to slide on the stockings. And, as you’ve probably gathered from the spoilery trailers, Einar finds that said stockings provide a comfort he is yet to experience in his assigned body.
Redmayne delivers another transformative performance in the central role, but it’s a performance that lacks the miraculous metamorphosis of his work in last year’s The Theory of Everything. This time around it’s all a bit precious.
Alicia Vikander is more successful in the role of Gerda. She provides a way into the film and stands as the emotional core throughout most of the running time. She elevates Redmayne’s performance, but that leaves any scenes without her feeling lacking. Also very strong is Matthias Schoenaerts, whose effortless screen presence is a real treasure.
The film also works on a visual level and it’s true that the director, Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech and Les Misérables), does shoot an attractive movie. Under his direction, The Danish Girl is all flaking wallpaper and soft pastel tones, and the artful frame matches the Wegener’s professions pleasantly.
That being said, his frequent use of picture postcard transitional shots of the Copenhagen harbour do nothing to help the film’s languid pacing. Yes, the edit could of, and should of, been sharper, but there seem to be underlying problems with Lucinda Coxon’s script. There’s not enough narrative excitement to merit to the two-hour running time, in the process softening the effect of the smattering of stirring moments.
The film also loses some of its political potency by ultimately presenting a thoroughly conservative stance on transgender life. Now, this may well be in keeping with the Wegener’s real-life arc, but Lily is a decidedly femme figure. Her idea of womanhood consists of working in the perfume section of a department store, of wearing dresses and being a mother. And, while that accounts for a certain subsection of transgender women, there seem to be numerous subcultures left unrepresented and unaddressed.
While the performances are strong – with Eddie Redmayne being the weak link, if anything – The Danish Girl comes across as a missed opportunity. Tom Hooper’s film could have taken a really progressive stance on transgender issues and delivered a really politically charged piece of cinema, without losing sight of the characters at its core. Instead, we’re given a noticeably more conservative, and narratively straightforward, prestige picture, that just happens to be about a transgender person.