“The Danish Girl,” based on the life of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, has many things going for it: excellent acting, impeccable production values and socially relevant subject matter. Yet this well-crafted film often seems hemmed in by its own tasteful restraint.
Perhaps this genteel approach may make the movie accessible to a wider audience, but the script often straightjackets the dramatic conflict of the story, which concerns a married Danish artist who undergoes gender reassignment surgery in 1920s Europe.
Ostensibly, “The Danish Girl” is a historical biopic about this courageous transgender figure, but in reality, it’s more a love-conquers-all tale in which Lili’s wife, Gerda, serves as the emotional core. That’s not a bad thing, but somehow Lili gets short shrift: We see her change on the exterior, but less so on the interior.
To be sure, there are dazzling moments, particularly when no words are being spoken. When Lili (Eddie Redmayne) ventures into a dressing room, she disrobes and eyes herself in the mirror. We see a naked man, but it’s obvious that Lili sees something very different — and the sense of her gender identity predicament is palpable. In another exhilarating scene, also with no dialogue, Lili visits a strip-tease joint, and we can feel her sense of discovery and joy and pain and longing as she imitates the dancer’s every move.
It’s telling that most of the powerful moments in this dramatic love story occur when Lili and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) are alone or interacting with other characters. The two lead actors deliver strong performances, but the script doesn’t allow the sparks to fly between them. As the story moves along, we get little sense of how their heretofore playful sexual relationship has been affected by Lili’s self-revelation. It’s as if the film is afraid to venture into tricky territory for fear of offending anyone.
More important, Lili’s courage seems to be an afterthought in the story. In those times, it took an extraordinary act of bravery for Lili to act on her gender identity, but we never feel the inner turmoil that she must have experienced in deciding to be true to herself. The outside world also doesn’t seem to put Lili in any kind of real peril, which may be hard for some to believe.
Fortunately, the presence of Redmayne offsets some of these deficiencies. Coming off his Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” the androgynous actor proves once again his fearlessness and his dedication to craft. His Lili is a technical marvel, an impressive assortment of gestures and expressions that are skillfully calibrated to show the Danish painter’s transition from Einar Wegener to Lili Elbe. On occasion, he overdoes the shy smile and downward glance, but this is still formidable work; we just wish that the script had given him a chance to explore Lili (and Einar, for that matter) in more depth.
Vikander has the less showy role, but her character is more three-dimensional and gives the film its emotional heft. Gerda’s pain, confusion — and ultimate acceptance — are written all over her beautiful, open face. Gerda is an artist with a bohemian spirit, but her love for Lili trumps everything. The long-suffering, but supportive wife is not the most original character in the world, but Vikander breathes new life into it.
Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech,” “Les Miserables”) also elicits strong work from his supporting cast: Ben Whishaw as Lili’s would-be suitor; Matthias Schoenaerts as a loyal friend to both Lili and Gerda; and Sebastian Koch, as a ground-breaking doctor who tries to help Lili. When these characters are on the screen, the film gets a much-needed jolt of energy.
Every frame of this movie is exquisitely shot and set decorated. It’s obvious that this is a well-intentioned, sensitive labor of love, and Hooper’s strategy of keeping it safe is bound to bring in folks who might otherwise avoid such material. For the rest of us, we must settle for a film that is solid, but never quite soars.
‘The Danish Girl’
Rated R. Time: 2:00.