The Danish Girl is pure Oscar fare. It is a well-manicured look at history, also relating to a timely topic, and anchored by a prestige director and award-worthy performances. That’s not damning, but there is something inheritable lazy about it. Is that because it is difficult to see it as genuine because we know what its mission is? Is it because Eddie Redmayne just won an Oscar and it feels like he is ploying for another one? Or is it that Tom Hooper is such a flat director that his films feel like what Oscar films would be parodied as on Saturday Night Live?
It may be a little of all three. So let’s break it down.
First question is why does it seem disingenuous. It all comes down to Hooper and his directing style. He directs his films like a mix between a TV movie and a play, carrying his shots around like a pendant drifting back and forth. There is nothing cinematic about them and this becomes apparent to the audience, who feels more like they’re sitting down for a lecture rather than a ride enhanced by the magic of movies.
That’s frustrating because the story is important. The Danish Girl is a look at the life of Lili Elbe (Redmayne), who was the first recipient of a male to female sex reassignment surgery in the early 1920s. The story also grapples with her wife, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), who has to come to grips with the loss of her husband.
“This movie is very important and you should take it like such” should be the tagline. That’s fine, but also not deserved. We understand the weight that it carries, but that doesn’t mean we have to immediately pick it up. Earn that.
Second question is whether Eddie Redmayne is just gunning for every Oscar right now or if this is something he was really passionate about. I can’t speak to the second point since we sadly aren’t on speaking terms yet, but the first one is more of a joke with a hint of truth. Redmayne is fantastic in the role and there really isn’t much more you can say about him. His work speaks for himself, much like it did in The Theory of Everything, and it seems moot to dive into it. The real star of this film is Vikander as Gerda and the emotional turmoil she faces as she attempts to come to terms with the transition her husband is making and the sudden switch that is made from her having a husband, and her losing him.
This point is where The Danish Girl shines because unlike other films and shows about transgender characters, it dives into the effect of the transition and the selfishness that comes from one end. That’s not to say that Lili didn’t deserve to be a selfish — she was living her life in a body that was not truly her and when she was finally given the chance to realize that, she had to take it.
This trait has been done before in other media, but it seems to always favor the character who is transitioning. In The Danish Girl, this selfishness displayed by Lili is what creates the chaos in Gerda’s marriage and makes her question her role in Lili’s life.
Initially, her husband is by her side and they’re attempting to have kids, only to be abruptly taken away for Lili. There are moments when she wants him there, but she is denied by Lili with each crushing blow taking a toll on her psyche. This is a story line that has staggered in previous media and the movie is able to tell both sides even with the seemingly negative term “selfishness” attached to it. Both sides are selfish, but this is a case where one it delved into both sides rather than favoring the one.
The third question is about Hooper, who could fart an Oscar nomination at this point, and continues to create lifeless movies about life’s most full characters. His movies are dictated by his actor’s performances (with the aid of an Alexandre Desplat score), but lack anything that shows any technical or cinematic skill to tell the story. Favoring low angle close-ups, and at times a swooping motion, this one is no different and this blandness leaves you without an impression by the end.
Like Hooper’s other work, The Danish Girl is never a poorly made movie. It lacks the vivacity of life and film that his characters demand — and he seems unable to give them.