Title: The Danish Girl
Director: Tom Hooper
Major Players: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts
Out Of Five: 3.5
It’s been some months since the first official stills of Eddie Redmayne in his latest role were released. More than enough time for us to be familiar with the shots of him playing the Danish girl of the title, a man who desperately wanted to be a woman, having lived in the wrong body all his life. I can’t help but think that the PR people got their timing wrong. They certainly got what they wanted at the time – loads of media coverage. But it does affect the way you watch the film. From the very outset, Redmayne looks distinctly androgynous and you’re wondering when you’ll first see him in that make up and dress. You know it’s going to happen and that expectation, especially as you also know what he’s going to look like, is something of a distraction.
Of course, the interest is even stronger because he won the Oscar last year for transforming himself into Professor Steven Hawking. Here he’s transforming himself yet again, and he’s bagged his second Golden Globe nomination in as many years for doing it. The Oscar nominations come out in mid-January and I’ll be staggered if he’s left off the list, if only because Tom Hooper has gained something of a reputation for making movies that attract award nominations like a magnet. And this is a film which does, yet again, look like awards bait, although how many of those likely nods will actually stick is open to question.
It’s Denmark in the 1920s. We had a forbidden relationship in Carol in the America of the 1950s a month or so ago and this, in its time, was potentially more taboo. Einar (Redmayne) allows his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) to paint him as a woman: the joke extends to them passing him off as a woman at a ball, but he’s too convincing to the outside world and, more seriously, it releases something inside him – the realisation that he’s in the wrong body. Now known as Lili, he increasingly lives as a woman and desperately searches for a way to become one physically. Doctors diagnose anything from perversion to schizophrenia. None of them are any help, except one doctor in Germany who can operate: in our parlance, perform gender re-assignment.
Both Einar/Lili and Gerda are broad minded artists, so their social circle comprises other artists, dancers, actors, making his lifestyle less of an issue, although it’s still pretty much kept under wraps. So for much of the film there’s a sense of it all being too safe, of the conventions of 1920s society not getting near a subject that only in recent years has been more openly discussed and publicised. Reality does bite eventually, but only once, when Lili’s attacked in the park because she looks different. The two thugs can’t work out whether she’s male or female.
Einar’s desire to become Lili in the fullest sense of the word places a severe strain on an otherwise intensely close marriage. Gerda still loves her husband deeply, just as much as he loves her, but she finds the lack of physical affection agonising. And, while Redmayne’s been getting plenty of attention, it’s Alicia Vikander as Gerda who’s the more likely to pick up a statue or two. This is a massive step up after Testament Of Youth last year and she delivers a superbly emotional and utterly believable performance, one of a woman devoted to her husband but who also finds the conventions of the day difficult to take.
While this is very much about the two main characters and their personal struggles, this is actually another unconventional love story. This time it’s about the strength of love: how unconditional love doesn’t mean unquestioning or unchallenging, but it does mean loving the other person no matter what. At the same time, it shows how it can still mean being yourself. That’s what Lili wants to be and she is, unquestionably, surrounded by love.
This is very emotional film, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a dramatic one. Despite the performances at its core, it never quite reaches the heights you expect: it’s too much on one tone, one level and one pace. And there are some moments that simply jar. When Lili is told that she’s not like other girls …… cue the snigger in the audience, or a shake of the head. It’s not just obvious, it’s as subtle as a sledgehammer.
In a year when other award contenders could well have the ferocity of The Revenant and the lush headiness of Carol, The Danish Girl looks colourless by comparison, rather like the washed woodwork favoured for the interiors in the film. Hooper isn’t necessarily wrong in keeping it on an even keel – scenery chewing would have only served to sensationalise it – but he doesn’t seem to realise that even and flat aren’t necessarily the same thing.
The Danish Girl is released in cinemas on New Year’s Day, Friday, 1 January 2016 and reviewed on Talking Pictures on New Year’s Eve, Thursday, 31 December.