He’s three films in, and I’m still trying to figure out what is so captivating about the films of Tom Hooper. The British television director popped onto the scene in 2010 with the best picture winning The King’s Speech, and then exploded into a large scale adaptation of the musical Les Miserables to great critical praise. However, as I watch his films, something just seems so utterly stiff. Sure, he gets fantastic performances out of his actors, but every other element of his films seems so completely safe. He’s like a student doing a school project for Mr. Oscar, a notoriously hard grader who strikes off points if things aren’t done exactly according to his formula for a “quality film.” He’s the ideal choice to take on something like The Danish Girl in theory, approaching the hot-button issue of transgender rights from an artistic yet not too risky perspective that will get even the most crusty and conservative of academy voters to well up at the tale. However, once the awards are all given out, all The Danish Girl needs to do is move it’s audience, who often demand a bit more flavor than the one often licked to pieces by the Academy, especially with such an important subject at it’s center.
The film is a somewhat fictionalized account of 1920s painter Einar Wegener’s (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda’s (Alicia Vikander) lives. The two share a comfortable, happy marriage in Denmark, until a simple piece of clothing changes everything. When Einar tries on a pair of woman’s stockings to help his wife finish a portrait she’s working on, something unlocks inside of him. He begins to experiment with dressing in women’s clothing, and with the ever supportive wife starts to assume a new identity by the name of Lilli Elbe. As Lilli starts to become more and more aware of her gender identity, complications arise in her marriage, as she realizes that she must escape the man’s body she feels trapped in.
It is very easy to have tremendous respect for Eddie Redmayne for the bravery he shows in this performance. The Oscar winner puts absolutely everything he has on the line here, and especially in bringing the physical aspects of the role to life, he is deeply convincing. However, through much of the film, there is simply something not quite right about the way this character is executed. The disconnect stems from a complicated blame game between Redmayne’s somewhat stagey delivery, and Hooper’s clinical direction. It feels as though he’s stringing us along by a very thin thread, expecting his audience to take this very complex psychological transformation at face value. He doesn’t want to explore why Lilli emerges out of Einar, he just wants us to see that it is in fact happening. It feels like we’re watching a subject in a lab experiment, instead of getting into her head and feeling her pain. As this loose structure moves along, it forces Redmayne to over-act to convey truth in these moments. It’s a deeply delicate balancing act that was clearly the great challenge in telling this story, and unfortunately, I worry that the film’s more bigoted audience members will come away from this film looking at it as a strange piece of theatrics, instead of a chance to whirl around in the head of somebody different from them.
Thank heaven for Alicia Vikander, who is the one who really carries the soul of this film. Her turn here, one of several fantastic ones over the course of her breakout year, is nothing short of a revelation. She’s both warm and supportive of her best friend’s affliction, while at the same time heartbroken by the spiritual lost of her husband. The utterly beautiful chemistry she shares with Redmayne brings out the film’s most authentic moments. Her performance is the one piece of the film that is utterly worthy of the awards the film so clearly wants to nab, and hopefully serves as a launching pad for someone who is quickly becoming one of this generation’s great leading ladies.
Complications that come through Redmayne’s character aside, the direction here is classic Tom Hooper, who still has not overcome his flat, television rooted sensibilities. Sure, he’s got his world famous close-ups that seem to go all the way up his actor’s nostrils, but beyond that, everything is very simple and workmanlike. It’s a shame, as a story this emotionally complicated would have been a fantastic opportunity to try out some new stylistic sensibilities to make the story come alive more. As it stands, every scene looks the same, feels the same, and comes across the same, which doesn’t do any favors for a film that runs over two hours in length.
Under a director more willing to take risks, The Danish Girl could have been a truly important and revolutionary film that stood at the center of the Transgender community. However, as it stands, it comes across like a stilted product. Sure, there are solid performances, but the film is ultimately more concerned with the bravery of Redmayne instead of reaching beyond that to showcase that of the real Lilli Elbe. It’ll certainly bring awareness and conversation to a few dinner tables come Oscar night, but beyond that, it’ll be a film that sits on the shelves of all involved while being passed up at Best Buy by shoppers for “looking boring.” Unfortunately, they’re right.