It is award bait season, so naturally, it is time for prestige directors directing prestige actors in prestige (read: overcoming-challenges-be-those-physical-emotional-or-mental) roles and Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, starring last year’s Academy Award Winner Eddie Redmayne fits neatly into that category. Almost too neatly, even.
The film tells the story of a transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener, played by Redmayne) and her journey from a male, married, heterosexual painter to the point where she became one of the first people to submit themselves to gender reassignment surgery. We first meet Einar in Copenhagen, where he and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) live a well matched, loving life that we wouldn’t consider unmodern even by today’s standards. Gerda is a painter too, a portraitist to Einer’s landscape artist, and when one of her models doesn’t show up, she asks her husband to don a pair of stockings and drape a dress around himself, allowing her to continue work. This small interaction quickly becomes a game of cross dressing and identity play, which they both enjoy as sort of a inside-joke prank they run on the society around them, until, one day, one moment, it becomes more than just a game. It becomes life.
Lili’s journey is shared through the perspective of this marriage, and while Redmayne has the seemingly obvious showcase role here, it is Vikander who walks away with the audience’s heart. Her Gerda is truly the Danish girl in the title (the only reference to the name is used in correlation to her, anyway) – strong and soft, brave and heartbroken, supportive and fragile, all at once. Without her, you have a feeling the movie just wouldn’t gel. It would be gorgeous, yes (Hooper has an eye for a visual tableau, no one can deny him that, and the painterly setting is a great visual cornerstone), and important, yes (in that “end of year” movie way), but it would also feel a little stiff, a little unanchored, much like its central lead.
The question is, can only one performance save a movie, and can only one person save a marriage? And the answer is harder to find that you’d think. Especially when taking into account the time and unprecedented circumstances in which Lili finds herself, and the courage and self-possesion the decisions Lili made required, this topic calls for a fearless, daring film, both narratively and visually. And, while perfectly lovely, The Danish Girl can’t seem to be able to forget that it is intended to be an Academy Award contender, and never lets its freak flag (pardon the unfortunate expression) fly high (or even medium). It is, in many ways, The King’s Speech (a movie I loved, for the record), that happens to have a gender identity issue at the center of it, versus a stutter. It is wonderful that a film on this topic got made, but in 2015 just getting something made adequately doesn’t cut it.
After all, 2015 is the year of transgender awareness seeping into the mainstream. From the Caitlyn Jenner three-ring circus to the heartbreaking and heartwarming sass of Laverne Cox’s Sophia on Orange Is The New Black to the transcedental Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman in Transparent, transgender community has become part of the day-to-day conversation in a way that few entertainment power players could have imagined even a couple years a go. Which is part of the problem with The Danish Girl. A decade or so in the making, much like Dallas Buyers Club before it or even Spotlight more recently, it suddenly feels less urgent. Making a major (MAJOR) motion picture about a difficult topic is as hard as ever, but as those battles are fought (and compromises made), the television and independent film community do the slow but certain chipping away at the public conscious and by the time these movies arrive, they feel a little too formal, a little too … dare we say, safe. Which, in this case, is a dirty, dirty word. Lili certainly didn’t like it.