The Danish Girl aspires to be an Academy Award contender on virtually every level. This mindset is the film’s biggest strength and its biggest hindrance. From a technical standpoint, it is impeccably filmed. Every frame is filled with visual splendor and strong period detail. Everything on the surface is worthy of award discussion. Where The Danish Girl fails is in its portrayal of the central story. All of the external filmmaking can’t offset the absence of worthwhile impact on an internal level. There was never a moment where I felt an emotional connection to the story. It was a lot like studying a mounted painting with no subtext.
Based on the real life story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), the first known individual to undergo a sex change, The Danish Girl aims to please. The problem is that director Tom Hooper is far too reserved in his storytelling. Everything feels overly calculated to avoid being offensive. By playing it safe, Hooper removes any of the emotional impact of the story. Einar’s struggle is one that should create an emotional connection. His transition into adopting a female identity strains his marriage and subjects him to ridicule and mockery.
Hooper’s choices prevent any sort of investment in Einar’s struggle. At the beginning, Einar does not come across as someone struggling with his gender identity. It is only when he closely examines a dress that he starts to show signs of conflict. That moment aside, there is little done to show Einar/Lili’s internal dilemma. Oftentimes, the narrative feels like it is grasping at straws to avoid being too controversial or emotionally draining. Many of Lili’s documented tribulations are absent from this film. What is put in their place provides little in the way of taxing drama.
The lack of an emotional investment is not due to the performances of the two leads. Both Redmayne and co-lead Alicia Vikander do their best with the outlines they are given. Like his Oscar-winning performance in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne owns the difficult physicality required for this role. Like the film itself, his performance excels on the surface. The way he changes his mannerisms throughout the film is impressive but there’s not enough of an internal performance. We don’t get to explore the mind of Einar/Lili as the film progresses. After a while, Einar/Lili ceases to be interesting and becomes a superficial detail rather than a fully realized protagonist.
Keeping up with her already stellar year, Alicia Vikander is the true highlight of The Danish Girl. As Einar’s wife and fellow painter, Vikander manages to transcend the limitations of the story. Her performance manages to convey everything her character is struggling with internally. She witnesses her whole livelihood get turned upside down. Even though much of The Danish Girl feels like fabricated storytelling to serve a film, Vikander helps bring some reality. Expect to see Vikander emerge as a potential frontrunner as we get closer to the onslaught of award ceremonies.
The Danish Girl is two-thirds of a lavish but harmless period piece. The final thirty minutes or so descends into becoming a preachy and overly melodramatic statement. There are a few moments of symbolism that did manage to surpass the overall reserved depiction of the subject matter. Einar visiting a peep show was one of the best scenes in the movie. Those are the kinds of moments I was hoping to see more of. Even with two excellent performances at the center of a beautifully composed film, The Danish Girl only scratches the surface of this fascinating real life story.