Tom Hooper, check. Eddie Redmayne, check. Alicia Vikander, check. Powerful story that is set in the 1920s/30s but is a timely release that is relevant in today’s society, check. All this screams and shouts “Oscars!” to me. So why did this film leave me cold when I left the cinema?
The Danish Girl tells the story of Lili Elbe (Redmayne), who started life as Einar Wegener, and the film begins with him enjoying success as an acclaimed painter and married to fellow artist, Gerda (Vikander). When Gerda asks her husband to pose in stockings and satin slippers so that she can finish her painting of a model that cancels her sitting, it awakens Lili in Einar and starts her on a path to becoming her true self. This is encouraged in a playful way by his wife at first, who believes it is just a game the two of them are playing, but as the film unfolds she realises that Lili is more than just her husband’s alter ego as he explores his female self further.
This film had so much potential, as mentioned in the first paragraph, and it’s disappointing that this potential is not realised. The main problem, surprisingly, is Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili and the way he handles the change from Einar. At times his performance flourishes with flashes of brilliance where you believe he is this tortured soul trapped in the wrong body, and at other times his performance is one thigh slap away from being panto at the local amateur dramatics society! His portrayal looks and feels forced and artificial, which is further emphasised by the breath-taking performance of Alicia Vikander, who is so natural, believeable and in-sync with her character that at no point do you question why she is so supportive of her husband’s desire to be a woman when his success would be the death of their marriage. Her performance is so convincing you forget you are watching her in a film. She actually is Gerda, and Redmayne should have been paying closer attention to this as he might have picked up some pointers. Vikander really is one of the finest actors of her generation, and its a testament to that when you are more interested in how she starts off in the shadow of her husband’s artistic talent as he succeeds with his work whilst she struggles to get her portraits accepted by the gallery, and how conflicted she must be when Einar transforms to Lili signalling the end of their relationship but how her artistic career thrives when she paints Einar as Lili. It’s captivating and enthralling stuff and you want to see more of that story, but this shouldn’t be the case. After all, it’s not called “The Danish Girl’s Wife“…
The other issue with the film is the sumptuous design of it all. Whilst this works for the bohemian parties and gallery backdrops that the film frequents, it is jarring when we get to the parts that require more grit and authenticity. The story is in there but it all has a glossy sheen over it that lessens the impact of what Lili had to endure in her transformation. It leads us to forget that this was the first operation of its type and it was attempted in the 1930s, a dangerous procedure in the present never mind way back then, but the whole aesthetic of the picture from start to finish makes it look like a vintage copy of Glamour magazine! It sucks out all the realism of the film and I didn’t feel emotionally engaged by it at all. Also, when you look at your watch thinking an eternity must have past and you’re only half way through that is never a good sign. It is boring and an ordeal to watch at times, which is quite an achievement considering its short running time.
However, along with Vikander, another plus is how beautiful the cinematography is. Every shot is just as stunning as the artwork the artists paint in the film. Every frame draws you in, and if you didn’t know the name of the director you could tell it is a Tom Hooper film. It has all the film language and visual flair of his previous offering, Les Misérables , just on a much smaller scale.
The stunning Vikander and cinematography aside, the film is not successful in its execution. The story of such a brave pioneer as Lili Elbe deserves a better portrayal than this.