In today’s social climate, a film like The Danish Girl occupies an interesting space. In a world of Caitlyn Jenner, of Transparent, of Orange is the New Black and of Tangerine, the subject of transsexuality has become a common talking point in modern society. It would only be a matter of time, really, before the subject would get the full Hollywood treatment (consider the likes of Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica to be the opening salvos), and that time has come. With the muscle of Universal’s Focus Features behind it and some seriously pedigreed names like Tom Hooper (Academy-award winning director of The King’s Speech) and Eddie Redmayne (Academy-award winning actor of The Theory of Everything), the promise of another award-seeking biopic would be certain.
Redmayne is Einar Wegener, a landscape painter in 1920’s Copenhagen and husband of fellow painter Gerda (Alicia Vikander). When Gerda asks Einar to stand in for her female model friend to finish a painting, she soon begins painting him even more often as a woman and her career begins to take off. Soon, Einar is appearing in public as his alter ego Lili, until it becomes clear that he thinks of himself more as Lili than as Einar. As Gerda attempts to come to grips with the change in her husband, the couple discovers a controversial doctor who claims he can change Einar to Lili permanently via surgery, making him the first subjects of a sex reassignment procedure.
Redmayne is certainly committed to his role on his own way, but it is in his performance that The Danish Girl feels the most compromised; the conflict at the center of his character, this gnawing, yearning sense of being an alien in his own skin, only seems to hit home intermittently, with the script too preoccupied with Einar’s transition through the use of outward mimicry of the way women act. As Einar spends more time as Lilli, the film never convinces that it amounts to anything beyond transvestitism, a key distinction from the transsexuality the character is supposed to represent. This is, of course, not to belittle one in the face of the other, but it flies in the face of the story that is specifically being told here. Without a convincing focal point, the foundation of the film cracks and the whole enterprise begins to sink into the ground.
Vikander, who is having a breakout year thanks to this film as well as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Ex Machina, thus becomes film’s sole highlight, an ebullient bundle of energy and charm who continues to captivate even as the light behind her eyes begins to dim later on in the story. As much as she works to keep things interesting, she cannot overcome the flaws of her costar’s approach and the negative impact those flaws inflict on The Danish Girl’s believability. And with Tom Hooper behind the camera shooting things in the most pedestrian way possible (a hallmark of his after films like The King’s Speech and Les Miserables), only every now and then spicing things up with the way he frames Gerda painting from behind the canvas, there is not much to distract from the issues at the core of the film. Whenever Vikander is not front and center, it simply cannot engage.
By the time The Danish Girl lurches to its conclusion, it has ended in the most perfunctory of ways. The final climax is an emotional one, but it can only be so effective when its focal character is not engrossing. This is a film that falls into so many of the pitfalls that can befall biopics like this, often feeling like it is on rails, just moving toward the next plot point without managing to get to the core of the characters. Vikander is great, and fully deserving of the praise she has received and will receive, but she is not enough. Without an equal at her side, her performance rings hollow, which is a shame.