As I sit here pondering what to say about director Tom Hooper’s new movie The Danish Girl, I feel I’m truly at a loss. The film itself is really quite exquisite. The two stars, Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, are equally excellent, and all the production elements are outstanding, particularly the score by Alexandre Desplat and the cinematography by Danny Cohen. So why, then, do I struggle with words? Maybe it’s because the movie was TOO well made. All I can remember were the performances, how it looked and how it sounded. I can’t remember anything about how it made me feel. Because, I think, the answer is: not much.
Which is astounding, considering what The Danish Girl is about. Set in the progressive art scene of Denmark in the 1920’s, we meet married painters Einar and Gerda Wegener, played by Redmayne and Vikander. As the story unfolds, we and they discover that Einar has a different identity: he has always felt like he was a woman inside. When given an opportunity to play a character named Lily, he jumps at the chance to make his inner self come to life, dressing in women’s clothes, putting on a wig and makeup and adopting feminine behavior and movements. However, when his wife realizes it is no longer a game and her husband’s desire is not to play Lily but be Lily, the two embark on a journey, both emotional and literal, to achieve something that, at that time, had never been done before: a sex change operation. This story, not only about a transgender pioneer discovering her true self, but also about a couple coming to terms with enormous changes in their relationship, could have/should have hit on so many different emotional chords, but, somehow, didn’t hit on any.
Except, it must be said, in the two performances. While, admittedly, the script left them sorely lacking in emotional connection with the audience (and with each other), what Redmayne and Vikander do with what they’ve been given here is absolutely breathtaking—Redmayne in particular, who seems to literally be made of rubber, for what he can do with his body (especially after his magical performance last year in The Theory of Everything). His transformative—literally and spiritually—performance here is elegant, beautiful and heartbreaking.
And Alicia Vikander, who trumpeted her arrival earlier this year with her haunting performance in Ex Machina, solidifies her place in Hollywood with this powerful yet compassionate portrayal of a woman heartbroken but never lost. It’s yet another thankless performance—the woman who supports the male star in the flashy role—but she makes the absolute most of it and everyone should and will remember this name: Alicia Vikander.
But director Tom Hooper, who gave us The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, is known for leaving audiences somewhat cold and The Danish Girl is, sadly, no exception. Despite an emotionally powerful subject, two riveting performances and production values second-to-none, The Danish Girl still ends up being only as pretty as a painting—gorgeous, delicate, admirable, but, ultimately, merely one-dimensional.