‘Danish Girl’ looks great but lacks real emotion
Inside the Danish painter Einar Wegener (1882-1931) lived a woman who called herself Lili Elbe. Somewhere inside “The Danish Girl,” the movie based on the story of Einar and Lili, lives a messier and far more vibrant film — one able to convey raw emotions rather than decorous production values. Einar finally and fully became Lili in 1930, possibly the first documented case of gender reassignment surgery. “The Danish Girl,” by contrast, is unable to escape itself. You may have a lovely, edifying time watching the movie choke on its own good taste.
In a time of increasing social acceptance of transgender issues and individuals — let us pause to commemorate the passing this week of another pioneer, Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn — “The Danish Girl” arrives as a lavishly appointed and sympathetic portrait of a forerunner. It is directed by Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for “The King’s Speech,” and it allows last year’s Oscar winner for best actor, Eddie Redmayne, to transform himself yet again. Indeed, transformation and performance are themes of the movie. Early on, Einar is a man occasionally dressing as a woman. Later, Lili is a woman who sometimes wears the costume of a man. Ultimately, the costume itself becomes unnecessary.
To the medical minds of early-20th-century Europe, hers is a case of perversion, delusion, schizophrenia. It’s tough going for Einar’s wife as well. Gerda Gottlieb (Alicia Vikander) is also a painter, less famous than her husband and chafing at the art scene’s unexamined chauvinism. The couple lives a life of bourgeois bohemianism in Copenhagen, complete with an adorable dog and a “scandalous” ballerina friend (Amber Heard). When the latter fails to show up for a portrait session, Gerda coaxes her husband into posing in stockings and tulle, and the experience unlocks an inner door. A few scenes later, Gerda brings a fully cross-dressed “Lili” to a public gala as a sort of art prank. For Einar, it’s a rapturous coming out.
The irony — which the movie doesn’t do much with — is that Gerda’s career took off once she started painting moody, erotic canvases of a mysterious redheaded woman, a subject no one knew was her husband. Redmayne plays his role with a wounded tremulousness that emphasizes Lili’s fear and martyrdom; she can barely look the other characters in the eye. Whether this is mannered acting or an actor playing a mannered person is almost immaterial; it’s not facetious to say the performance feels less than full-bodied.
Vikander, by contrast, brings Gerda to headstrong, confused life, even when “The Danish Girl” tries to whip up a romantic triangle with the appearance of Hans, a Paris art dealer who knew Einar when they were children and who is played with agreeably caddish smolder by Matthias Schoenaerts, last seen giving Carey Mulligan the vapors in “Far From the Madding Crowd.” What with “Ex Machina,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and three or five others, Vikander has had a busy year — she’s practically Chastain-ian in her ubiquity. And her earthiness saves this movie from its most refined impulses.
There are a few of us who groan when we see the words “directed by Tom Hooper” come onto a screen, because after “The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables” the name has come to stand for sumptuous interiors and costumes, swooping camerawork and swooning scores, literate scripts and, above all, Great Acting — all of it sensitive and sensible and embalmed, none of it beating with the pulse of life as it’s lived. Hooper makes coffee-table cinema, and “The Danish Girl” is his latest volume. Only once is a viewer genuinely startled, when a desperate Einar visits a peepshow in a Paris bordello so he can mimic the ladylike movements of the whore behind the glass. It’s an otherworldly moment, shot through with anguish and empathy, and of course the whore is gorgeous.
The movie also touches rather too lightly on its portrait of a marriage in which one partner is vanishing before the other’s eyes. “The Danish Girl” takes its interest and strength from the drama of two people wrestling with notions we’ve only recently begun to articulate: that the gender in our brains may be at odds with the gender of our bodies and that our sexuality may be separate from both. Those ideas are handled as though they were delicate china teacups until the final act, when Lili at last meets Dr. Warnekros of Dresden (Sebastian Koch of “Bridge of Spies” and “Homeland”) and embarks onto the frontiers of medicine and identity.
By then it’s almost too late, for both Lili and the film. There are scenes of the heroine languishing in hospital beds like Bette Davis with Mysterious Movie Wasting Disease, and there’s a farewell sequence with Gerda that will make you cry unless you know it never happened. (Gottlieb was remarried by then and living in Morocco.) “The Danish Girl” wants to introduce us to a woman who helped forge a new way of thinking about what defines a person as a man or a woman. Mostly, though, it’s about the joy of sets.
★ ★ ½
THE DANISH GIRL
Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel by David Ebershoff. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 120 minutes. R (sexuality, full nudity).