I am not sure what it is about Eddie Redmayne, or perhaps it is just the films he has chosen of late, but for the second time in a row I find my attention drifting from him and towards his female co-stars. Similar to The Theory of Everything, where he played another key figure in Stephen Hawking, The Danish Girl finds the talented actor assuming the role of Lili Elbe, one of the first known individuals to have gender reassignment surgery. By all accounts Redmayne should have been the name that lingered in my mind when the final credits rolled, after all he does give a strong performance in the film, but it wasn’t.
In fact it was the understated work of Alicia Vikander, as the wife of Redmayne’s transitioning character, which took my breath away. She is the crucial lynchpin that keeps the wheels spinning throughout the film.
Based on the novel by David Ebershoff, the film follows renowned artist Einar Wegener (played by Redmayne) as he discovers a side of himself long buried when his wife Gerda (Vikander), a painter herself, asks him to fill in for a female model running late. Captivated by the soft and tantalizing feel of female clothing on his skin, Wegener assumes the identity of Lili Elbe and begins experimenting with the nuances that come with being a woman. Though fully supporting her husband, including coaching him on such things as how to dress and walk, Greda finds that their relationship becomes strained when Lili reveals that she wants to surgically become a woman.
The couple’s union is further complicated when Lili starts spending time with Henrik (Ben Whishaw) in secret, and the reemergence of Einar’s old friend Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts) sparks unexpected feelings in both Greda and Lili.
In a year that has seen great strides for the transgendered community, especially in regards to positive portrayals in the media; the timing of Tom Hooper’s film could not be more perfect. While not as energetic in tone or pacing as Tangerine, The Danish Girl tackles the subject matter with grace. Though a solid film, Hooper’s direction keeps it from being the great movie it really should be. Where the film stumbles is in its latter half. All the eloquent and subtle beats Hooper establishes at the beginning are thrown out the window by the last act.
Similar to a chef constantly interrupting your delicious meal to comment on how rare the ingredients are, the film frequently feels the need to overstate its own importance. As a result, The Danish Girl devolves into conventional rhythms that take away from the gripping emotions the narrative initially establishes.
Fortunately for Hooper, Alicia Vikander is so damn good that she more than makes up for some of the formulaic shortcomings in the film. Even in Greda’s moments of doubt and emotional pain, Vikander provides her with an inner strength that is almost hypnotic. The overall chemistry she has with Redmayne also helps to ensure that Gerda and Lili remain relatable to the audience throughout their lengthy journey. Again, this is not to sell Redmayne short by any means. He is wonderful in the film, brining a vulnerability to Lili that always feels honest. However, his Porsche lags a few paces behind Vikander’s Ferrari.
The Danish Girl is a good film that had the tools to be a truly great one, it is just a shame that it gets so consumed with its own importance near the end.