Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Lucinda Coxon (based on the novel by David Ebershoff)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander
Tom Hooper returns to the director’s chair following his flawed musical epic Les Misérables with the much more subdued The Danish Girl. Inspired by the life of artist Lili Elbe, the film tells the story of Einar Elbe and his wife, Gerda Wegener, as they make their way through life as painters in early-1900’s Copenhagen. After a moment of mock-modelling in drag for one of Gerda’s paintings, Einar begins to question his identity and adopts the personality of Lili, believing himself to actually be a woman. The couple are thrust into a tumultuous journey, questioning their relationship, their lives together, and how much they truly know one another.
The film’s first twenty-or-so minutes are its strong point, a bleary rumination on the characters’ respective, somewhat flimsy identities. Things feel somewhat loose and hazy while seductive and sensual, making Einar’s initial confusion and discovery almost tangible, while some wonderfully human and legitimately humourous moments pepper the proceedings. The human body is treated like a Renaissance-era painting or a canvas, femininity and questioned masculinity unfettered and in full display while hinting at their forthcoming malleable nature. It’s honestly quite beautiful.
Unfortunately, as The Danish Girl presses forward, the style ceases to supplement the story and starts to get in the way. Hooper and his go-to cinematographer, Danny Cohen, have a knack for setting up gorgeous shots that would make for wonderful photographs but add literally nothing to the film. Stunning establishing shots are commonly used for transitions between scenes but only serve to temporarily pull the viewer away from the experience. Establishing shots can be used exceptionally well, like in In Bruges where they introduce us to the city of Bruges (which is as much a character in that film as anyone else) and build a looming tone of dread, while The Danish Girl seems to use them without thought or purpose, making you think, “Oh that looks nice,” and moving on, as if you’re a lazy tourist in Copenhagen or Paris content with experiencing only the surface. Elsewhere, Hooper enjoys playing with space, framing shots in slightly off-kilter and unique ways, but again without much intention that really creates benefit. This sort of grandiose photography worked well in a drama of regents in The King’s Speech or even when they weren’t shoving the camera down the actors’ throats in Les Misérables, but with something more intimate like The Danish Girl it mostly just obstructs. I’m very supportive of directors toying around with unique imagery and framing, but when it isn’t constructive, it’s often intrusive.
Also like Les Misérables, the film suffers from some major pacing problems. The editing often feels rapid and sometimes fails to allow important moments the room to breathe, an issue Hooper’s films have had in the past. As a whole, then, the story stumbles forward and sideways like a drunkard, losing all sense of time. The progression of the characters, at one point subtle, suddenly feels unnatural as the film seems more concerned with bringing us from key frame to key frame rather than sharing the journey in between them. It all starts subtly, but each bad cut, ill-conceived flourish, and manipulative chord from the score begins to pile up brick by brick until you’re suddenly at the end with a giant wall between you and the film, feeling nothing.
The lead performances here are of considerable merit, however. Eddie Redmayne takes on another transformative role as Einar/Lili, manifesting that androgynous middle ground of a person trapped between male and female. His turn is honest and vulnerable and despite the film’s flaws still manages to bring both Einar and Lili convincingly to life through one body. What really steals the show for me, however, is Alicia Vikander’s performance as Gerda, perfectly capturing the torturous trial of a woman deeply in love but slowly losing her husband and hope for a life that could have been. This makes her acts of love toward Lili all the more powerful and heartrending, and it ought to go down as one of the best lead performances of the year.
The wonderful acting, then, make the directorial flaws all the more frustrating. Tom Hooper is consistently difficult for me, having the emotional maturity of a middle-aged man but the artistic maturity of a twenty-year-old still finding his footing. The Danish Girl is a lot of reserved pomp and circumstance bravado in presentation and general mishandling of editing duties preventing any legitimate payoff from taking flight. But hey, at least it looks nice.