Another New Year, another transformative Eddie Redmayne performance. This time last year we were taken aback by the actor’s committed performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything; a chameleonic turn that garnered multiple awards. It was not long after that the first images of him in The Danish Girl appeared, and almost immediately whisper began that the young Brit might join Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks to become the third winner of Best Actor at the Oscars two years in a row.
We’re not there yet, but it’s not inconceivable, especially if the Academy keeps up it’s time-honoured tradition of snubbing Leonard DiCaprio. Yet Redmayne isn’t the sole revelation in The Danish Girl; a film which struggles to rise above the good-taste prissiness of its director Tom Hooper, whose last eye-rolling Oscarbait indulgence Les Misérables gave us the dubious honour of Russell Crowe bellowing out musical numbers like a cow mooing in a wind tunnel.
The Danish Girl is based – very loosely – on the life of painter Einar Wegener who became one of the first men to undergo male to female sex reassignment surgery. Hooper gives 1920s Copenhagen a wonderfully evocative look, all rolling mist and cobbled roads, yet populates his film with Anglo darlings speaking the Queen’s finest English (see Redmayne in the lead). Einar is married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander, who steals the film right out from under him), a fellow painter but one doomed by the attitudes of the time to live in her husband’s shadow. When Einar stands in for one of her female models, he begins a process of self-discovery that will ultimately transform him into Lily Elbe, and will test the limits of Gerda’s love.
Despite the cattiness above, let’s be clear, Redmayne is superb in the role of Einar/Lily. If last year’s Jupiter Ascending taught us anything, however, it’s that he’s never a sure thing. Most of his finest work here comes early on as Einar starts making connections in his mind. Redmayne’s work is discreet. It’s all eyes, lips and hands. Gestures caught by Hooper that suggest the inner workings of a personality revealing itself. His frail form helps sell his transformation into Lily, and there’s a neatly curved evolution to his confidence in becoming a her.
Nevertheless, Vikander, who has the equally daunting task of making Gerda more than just a tear-jerking witness, remains the more memorable performer. Gerda is playful with Einar at first, then alarmed, hurt and finally accepting. It’s a delicate progression to play without appearing rote or predictable, but Vikander gives spark and vitality to each stage of Gerda’s journey. She’s as fleshed an individual as Einar/Lily, and her warmth opens up the pores of an otherwise very frigid film.
Hooper makes prestige films. It’s his bread and butter. And while he and director of photography Danny Cohen are experts at creating an exquisite still frame, it takes a lot to breathe life into the action taking place within their rigidly composed shots. Despite the young actors’ best efforts (and throwing in Matthias Schoenarts helps considerably) The Danish Girl feels a lot longer than it is, with the second hour especially settling to a somnambulist’s pace of event-checking. Lucinda Coxon’s script refuses to sensationalise the material, mercifully, but Hooper tries his damnedest to wring every last melodramatic drop out of it. So many, many tears are wept.
Yet, when it gets right down to it, The Danish Girl also feels disappointingly prudish, forever running up to the subject of sexual reassignment surgery and the physicality of changing gender, but always dashing back as soon as the conversation gets too graphic. I had no hunger for explicit scenes of the procedure being performed, but there’s a whitewashed quality to the final act of the film that feels strangely as though we’re being kept at arm’s length for the sake of decency. Something which goes against the otherwise extremely positive message Hooper’s film asserts about confronting inner truth.
But what did you expect? This is a picture from Working Title being released by Universal Studios with its eyes firmly on those little statuettes. It’s final moments sum up the conflict happening with the film; one is a remarkably understated moment of emotional poignancy; the other a mawkishly sentimental spot of symbolism before we cut abruptly to black. Exquisite restraint arm in arm with heavy-handed emotional hand-holding (for more evidence of the latter behold Alexandre Desplat’s windswept and weepy score).
This is a fine tale and a fine biopic if you can get past how pristine the job of varnishing it’s edges has been performed. Lily Elbe has been an inspiration to countless individuals who find themselves born into the wrong body, and her legacy has stood the test of time enough to be embraced and memorialised in this way. What’s less certain is whether Hooper’s film will have anywhere near the same sort of staying power. Nevertheless, this is an engaging, emotionally charged two hours showcasing two of the finest British acting talents of recent times. That should be enough to warrant a worthy visit to your local cinema.