Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl is not releasing into the easiest environment. The most high-profile film yet about transgender issues, and impossible to not compare to last year’s excellent Theory of Everything (transformative Eddie Redmayne performance, story of a marriage on the brink etc), there’s a mass of probably unfair expectations heaped on this movie. How unfortunate, then, that it should fail to meet almost all of them. With oddly stilted conversations, a weakly developed central relationship, and a series of wasted opportunities, The Danish Girl is saved from being totally forgettable by some moments of beautiful cinematography, but is one of the weakest Oscar-season movies I’ve seen this year.
Telling the story of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (Redmayne), born Einar Wegener, and the impact this transformation had on Lily’s wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), The Danish Girl had the potential to be one of 2015’s Big Important Films. However, unlike The Theory of Everything, the central marriage here never feels all that important. Gerda’s side of the story is only really a sketch, never fleshed out to anything beyond a vague feeling of abandonment. In fact, most of the plots aside from Einar’s journey into becoming Lili suffer this same problem – a story involving Ben Whishaw’s Henrik features an enormous character shift that happens entirely off-screen with barely a hint of explanation.
As such, it’s down to just a few key moments to carry the film’s emotional load, and these central events never land with the necessary punch. Even as Lili is threatened with being involuntarily sectioned, The Danish Girl fails to raise your pulse. Most damagingly, Lili’s gender reassignment surgery, the first of its kind, has far too little weight to it. Empathy is the most vital ingredient for a film like this to work, but we’re given too little insight into how Lili feels now that she’s in the right body.
Earlier in the story, as Einar first starts truly becoming Lili, there are some more effective moments. Lili’s attempts to ‘be’ Einar, especially when she goes to bed with Gerda, give Redmayne plenty to work with, and even Lucinda Coxon’s thin script and poorly edited dialogue can’t fully disguise what a great actor he is. However, his performance here, even at its best, is never as good as it was in any moment of being Stephen Hawking, and his supporting cast is less impressive here as well. Alicia Vikander is rather flat, sharing little chemistry with Redmayne, and there’s a criminal wastage of the raw charisma that can be Matthias Schoenarts.
The Danish Girl entered its first stages of pre-production in 2008 and, for all the talk of it now being more relevant than ever, it probably would have made far more of an impact five or six years ago. TV series like Transparent, Orange is the New Black, and the excellent Sense8 have dealt with transgender issues far more engagingly than this film does. At a technical level, The Danish Girl is excellent, with great costumes and sets and beautiful shots of Copenhagen and the Danish countryside, but it falls hopelessly into the ‘issue movie’ trap. Tasteful and well-meaning, but frankly quite boring – lacking narrative energy and convincing characters – The Danish Girl lacks the power that this story deserves.