Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard
Director: Tom Hooper
Oscar History: 4 nominations/1 win (Best Actor-Eddie Redmayne, Supporting Actress-Alicia Vikander*, Production Design, Costume)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars
I feel like sometimes Hollywood can’t quite make up its mind about where it wants to position itself in the larger pantheon of social issues. For an admittedly progressive community, they frequently make extraordinarily conservative films about hot button topics of the day, which of course age terribly. Look at something like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, which is deeply preachy and seems far too ridiculous decades later even if the topic it was discussing was still all over the news at the time, or the story of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, perhaps the most recent example of a social issue totally being dismissed even if the filmmakers call themselves brave. I unfortunately have to admit that The Danish Girl, one of the first major filmic conversations about transgender issues to come to light in the wake of what has to be considered a watershed moment for the transgender rights movement, falls into this category. It frequently feels shut off from the progress of the community, and though it tries to allow Victorian Style morals to serve as a cover for why it doesn’t seem a bit more engaged in more complicated issues of gender and sexuality, it ends up feeling like a film that will become quickly dated and already passe.
(Spoilers Ahead) This is a pity because the transgender community probably could use their own Brokeback Mountain style excellent film at this point. While there has been huge progress for the T in LGBT, you can still sense amongst sects of the aging liberal community an apprehension about, say, Olympic hero Bruce Jenner in a dress on the cover of Vanity Fair. In fact, while I was watching this film with my brother, I heard multiple murmurs from older couples of “Bruce Jenner” and some uncomfortable laughter in scenes that felt to me like they should be met with a sense of the unfortunate.
The problem here is that the audience isn’t entirely to blame-the film, especially earlier on in the movie, plays The Danish Girl for laughs. The film’s approach initially feels really inappropriate, with Einar/Lili (Redmayne) seemingly awakening his feminine side not in earlier flashback scenes or a clear understanding of his true self, but simply by trying on pantyhose. Lili even gets her name not from something that she has cultivated internally over decades, but simply from an offhand comment from a family friend Ulla (Heard), who discards it laughingly. This sort of “randomness” makes the second half of the film, where the filmmakers go through the PC language of “always felt like this” feel tacked on, as if they realized suddenly that GLAAD would be all over them if they didn’t handle the subject with more tact.
This is just one of multiple tonal problems the film has. We don’t get any sense from Lili, for example, of her having much of a sexual appetite despite a clear lust for men earlier on in the movie (she has a romantic dalliance with Ben Whishaw that initially seems like we’re about to have a very complicated love triangle, but that goes nowhere). Her relationship with Gerda (Vikander) is complicated, but it feels pretty odd considering that many historians considered the relationship to be largely sexless and because Einar seems to voraciously adore his wife and Lili appears to be completely disconnected from her. All of this makes the film, which needs a tactful hand if, as it clearly was hoping to be, it wanted to be the trans community’s Brokeback Mountain, but by ignoring chunks of history it feels less authentic.
The film’s two central performances have gotten the bulk of the awards accolades, and while both Redmayne and Vikander have showy moments, I wasn’t wowed in a new way by either. Redmayne’s grace as an actor is really stupendous, and he charms with the best of them, but I still haven’t been wowed in the same way I was with Les Miserables even if the years since have brought him more accolades, and his performance as Lili feels too reluctant and tick-tick-ticking methodical for my tastes. Vikander has had a banner year, but comparing her work here, which does have a comfortable ease and occasionally brings an emotionally complicated work lacking in what Redmayne is doing, still feels like it’s in the shadow of lesser-recognized pieces like Ex Machina and Testament of Youth. All-in-all, I’ll be glad if this gets her some sort of recognition for the future and more roles, but I’d prefer her to be cited for something else (and in the correct category-this isn’t even close to being a supporting performance).