Although it’s set 90 years ago, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl couldn’t feel more timely. 2015 has marked a turning point in the struggle for transgender acceptance, as high-profile symbols of that battle—from Caitlyn Jenner to Laverne Cox to the award-winning Amazon series Transparent—have crossed over into the mainstream, changing attitudes that until recently seemed unchangeable. It doesn’t hurt that Eddie Redmayne, who earned a Best Actor Oscar less than a year ago for his transformational portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, delivers yet another staggering performance as the film’s protagonist—a Copenhagen artist who became one of the first people to undergo gender-confirmation surgery. So why does The Danish Girl feel so remote? I think the problem is its director. Like Hooper’s The King’s Speech, the film is exquisitely made, capturing its time and place with a jeweler’s eye. Every stick of furniture, every thread of clothing, every swatch of paint is fastidiously perfect. Yet there’s something that’s a bit lifeless in its perfection. It feels like a movie that’s been lovingly crafted and put under glass in a museum. And I kept waiting for it to move me more than it did.
Based on David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel, The Danish Girl invites us to admire the loving marriage between renowned landscape painter Einar Wegener (Redmayne) and his less famous portrait-artist wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). But slowly Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon draw back the embroidered curtain to hint at the hidden side to Einar. You can see it in the way he runs his fingers across his wife’s silk nightgown when they embrace and in the way he looks at other women—not leeringly or out of desire to be with them, but rather to be them. He’s studying their behavior, taking note of how they carry themselves. Einar’s secret is outed when Gerda asks him to model for one of her female portraits by putting on stockings and holding a delicate feminine pose. At first it’s all a game. They even christen Einar’s alter ego “Lili.” But for Einar it’s more than that. It’s a moment of liberation. A chance to become the person she’s always been inside.
As Lili starts to appear with more frequency, the compassionate Gerda wrestles with how to react. Her husband has gained something, but she’s lost something. Vikander conveys her character’s psychological struggle with a stunning grace that’s every bit the equal of her flashier costar’s, especially when Einar, now fully blossomed as Lili, decides to go through with her groundbreaking but life-threatening surgery. Even with the handicap of acting behind the polite remove of Hooper’s film, Vikander and Redmayne are two stars whose glow can’t be dimmed. B