When early stills of Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe From The Danish Girl were released, some awards watchers wondered whether he had been rewarded too soon for his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything last year. Perhaps the Oscar then really should have gone to Michael Keaton because Redmayne surely was going to win one for this portrayal of the transgender pioneer.
When the trailers first hit, there was talk of Redmayne winning back to back Oscars, the first actor to do so since Tom Hanks did it with Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.
Since seeing the full film such talk has become muted. Redmayne will probably earn himself another nomination but he won’t win any big awards, least of all the Oscar. In fact, some film critics circles and The British Independent Film awards didn’t even nominate him in their year end round up of great performances.
It’s not that he is bad in the role or that he doesn’t give it his all. He is perfectly fine. It’s that his transformation here is nowhere near as total or convincing as in The Theory of Everything. He never quite reaches the depths of his character such that you truly believe he is a woman in a man’s casing. Trite as it may sound, it’s hard not to simply think, while watching the film, doesn’t Eddie Redmayne look nice in a dress. Or even, so, he’s a woman but she really can’t get the hang of lipstick, can she?
The latter observation may make some people bristle; how dare anyone make such a shallow comment about a serious film. These people need to chill. The Danish Girl is a film, a fictionalised account of Lili’s life, not a documentary. It makes much use of the fact that the two main characters are painters, ie deft with a brush. Surely the filmmakers could have done a more thorough job with the application of makeup.
It’s the kind of niggle that occupies you while watching the film because, whisper it, The Danish Girl is really not that great. The subject matter may be important, the acting impressive and the visuals pretty as a painting but the film itself is serviceable at best. The dialogue is clunky and cliched. The childhood and early experiences of Einar are glossed over with a single reference to a boyhood kiss with a friend who is sympathetically played as an adult by the always reliable Matthias Schoenarts. So that Lili, when she emerges does so in something of a psychological vacuum. And there is little demonstration of inner turmoil to help put the viewer in her shoes.
What elevates director Tom Hooper’s film is the performance by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as the wife who sees her husband through his journey of finding his true identity.
Vikander plays artist Gerda Wegener. It’s the 1920s. Gerda’s marriage to Einar Wegener (Redmayne) also an artist, is blissfully happy. She paints portraits that don’t sell, he paints landscapes that do. They are a forward thinking, devoted couple and move in similar minded arty circles. She’s the slightly more unconventional one of the two, wearing daring outfits for the age and making observations to male portrait subjects about how men find it difficult to be the object of a woman’s gaze, women, of course, being used to it.
One day their dancer friend Oola (Amber Heard) is late for a sitting. Gerda asks Einar to don some stockings and pose in her place. She gives him a pair of women’s shoes to wear and puts a dress to his chest. Einar caresses the beautiful fabric longingly and thus begins a journey of discovery leading to a groundbreaking process of gender transition to become Lili Elbe.
I saw The Danish Girl twice in the course of two days. First at the London premiere then at a private screening. The second viewing only confirmed my initial thoughts; that the film is watchable but not compelling. It plays all the right emotional beats but without properly getting under skin of its protagonists or the audience.
At the premiere both Redmayne and Vikander emphasised the love story at the heart of the film. Vikander noted that this was as much about Gerda’s journey as that of Einar/Lili. In fact, in the film it is Gerda who is described as ‘the Danish Girl’. It is Gerda who has to come to terms with losing her husband and accepting a new person in her life who can no longer give her what she wants or needs. It is Gerda who has the biggest emotional moments in the film.
As such, it is Vikander who is winning the early critics awards for her role. Bafflingly, she is being put forward in the supporting category when she is clearly a co- lead and may actually have more screen time than Redmayne. She is the heartbeat of the film and gives the clumsy script a more moving and emotionally wrenching performance than it deserves. Although, I personally preferred her underrated and beautiful turn in Testament of Youth, if this film wins her acclaim and plaudits, so be it. She’s had an amazing year with five films released so far and three more to come in the next few months. A long and enviable career seems on the cards.
The Danish Girl is released on New Year’s Day.