Eddie Redmayne’s lanky physique and gentle features make him well suited for the versatile demands of “The Danish Girl,” in which he starts out as a man and transitions into being a woman. Director Tom Hooper is a less natural fit. In “The King’s Speech” and “Les Misérables,” Hooper used an elegant visual style typical of many traditional period dramas that doesn’t serve “The Danish Girl.”
Based on David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel, the story embellishes on the experiences of Copenhagen painter Einar Wegener, who eventually took the identity of Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of a sex reassignment surgery in 1930. Aided by fellow painter and wife Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), Einer/Lili steadily confronts her desire and seeks help. This central drama maintains an engrossing quality thanks to its skilled leads, whose unique chemistry never strains credibility.
While Redmayne technically faces the greater challenge, Vikander manages a tricky balancing act, conveying surprise and discomfort in response to Lili’s emerging identity while also showing committed affection — the closest thing to an open mind possible at the time.
Beat by beat, however, “The Danish Girl” seems too mannered to convey Einar’s conflicting desires. When he first puts on women’s clothing to model for his wife, the situation is initially played for laughs and gets serious as Redmayne’s face stiffens and he gazes hypnotically at his stockings. Alexandre Desplat’s wondrous score — per usual — and cinematographer Danny Cohen’s painterly images complement the evocative performances. But as “The Danish Girl” unfolds across many pretty surfaces, it rarely burrows beneath them.
Hooper struggles to make Lili’s plight into more than a dreary, tragic chronicle in which the couple’s relationship struggles while Lili gets used to the idea of walking in high heels. Eventually, they join forces to find medical help, leading to a series of frustrating encounters and one tentative solution. Even here, however, Hooper never imbues these moments with much in the way of hope or excitement.
Instead, the story suffers from a distracting aura of self-importance. Vikander brings a remarkable tenderness to her character (who, in real life, left her husband’s side much earlier) but Redmayne’s sharp gaze and toothy smile make it virtually impossible to ignore the actorly feat on display. As it gets to the point where Einar becomes Lili, Redmayne’s performance reeks of artificiality.
“The Danish Girl” may be the biggest movie of the year to deal with transgender characters, part of a master narrative that works in tandem with the Caitlyn Jenner story, but it’s not the only one. “Tangerine,” Sean Baker’s scrappy digital portrait of African-American transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles, does a much more convincing job of making its characters into relatable figures not exclusively defined by their gender roles. Sadly, it’s not the transgender movie with a sizable budget and movie stars.
Despite its refined look, “The Danish Girl” wallows in Lili’s struggles without establishing much of a person. Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay offers plenty of intriguing observations about the process of Lili’s evolving role in the couple’s relationship — “marriage creates someone else,” she observes at a late stage in her transition — but offers no investment in her psychological state. Ultimately, Hooper observes the scenario with a degree of stylish remove that underserves the material.
That’s a particularly dispiriting outcome when considering the far more intriguing facts of the actual case: Gerda’s lesbian tendencies, and their eventual separation, both remain unexplored. Instead, “The Danish Girl” takes the form of a lavish fantasy made, unlike Elbe’s real story, of many familiar parts.
“The Danish Girl” opens November 27.