Why do we resent prestige pics, the kind of film you might call “Oscar bait”? Maybe it’s their penchant for cloying sentimentality; emotional manipulation of the most transparent kind. Perhaps it’s the notion that a little gold man somehow represents the pinnacle of cinematic achievement, as opposed to simple mastery of the form. Sometimes, though, as a reviewer at least, it’s the weight of expectation that film should be lauded simply because of its subject matter.
Last year The Theory of Everything seemed to coast by largely on this criteria; and two admittedly remarkable performances. Eddie Redmayne managed to capture the rigors of a body constricted by ALS while also managing to bring a mischievous spark to the role of Stephen Hawking. Now Redmayne has turned his talents to the role of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, who in 1930 became the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
While, as a non-trans actor, Redmayne’s casting may have been controversial, it’s also understandable. Redmayne has proven himself adept at conveying a sense of knowing interiority, which proves crucial in portraying the painfully shy Einar. Even as the most celebrated landscape painter in Copenhagen, he seems ill at ease in his own skin. It’s only in bed with his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), he’s able to display an, albeit inelegant, charm; accompanied by clear adoration of her.
Gerda, meanwhile, is struggling to established herself as a portrait artist in her own right in a society determined to patronize her abilities. With her bronzed skin and tightly-laced boots, she’s a bold, brassy presence who outshines the pale, eggshell blue walls of her and Einar’s rococo studio apartment. Framed through the neat lattice of it’s internal windows, it’s clear they are both prisoners of this comfortable formality, the roles that have been provided for them.
However, everything changes the day that Gerda asks Einar to pose for her in place of her errant model. As Einar slips on a pair of too-small ballet shoes and holds the dress up, his fingers play delicately across the fabric. Hooper shoots the scene almost as a seduction, a profoundly tactile experience that jars loose something in Einar – the screen swims with suppressed emotion. It also proves a revelatory experience for Gerda, too, who finds in the newly realized Lili a muse.
Before too long, Lili makes her first appearance in public; at the sort of grand, decadent soiree at which Einar’s absence would be no surprise. What Gerda doesn’t yet appreciate, however, amid all the fun and games – teaching Lili how to walk, applying her makeup – is that for her spouse this is not merely playing dress-up. Lili brings to light a grace and self-possession that was alien to the painfully awkward Einar. What comes next is both triumph and tragedy.
It’s a shame therefore that Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay — adapted from David Ebershoff’s fictionalized account of Lili’s story — shows only superficial insight. Despite a series of touching scenes, like one where she longingly mimics the actions of a model at a peepshow — there is a definite degree of self-actualizing performance to Lili’s transformation — the film never gets to the heart of its subject, putting the dramatic weight largely on both Redmayne and Vikander.
With his sharp cheekbones, grey-green eyes, and sweep of auburn hair, Redmayne’s androgynous good looks serve him well here: pale and buttoned-down as Einar; tender yet resplendent as Lili, coy smile and all. Vikander, meanwhile, sells Gerda’s ambivalence at giving up the man she loves for the woman he needs to become; to watch Einar blossom into Lili then, potentially, Lili fade away in becoming her true self, no matter the cost or likely outcome.
Even with Alexandre Desplat’s relentlessly emotive score and the sunny, remote beauty of Danny Cohen’s cinematography, The Danish Girl feels almost reluctant to embrace the full sweep of its tale. Matthias Schoenaerts appears as Einar’s suave boyhood friend Hans, who becomes a figure of support for Gerda, and Ben Whishaw as a tremulous suitor for Lili, but the film is too tasteful to ever examine them as genuine objects of desire.
Transgenderism is a hugely topical issue, but The Danish Girl adds little to the discussion. The bad doctor (Pip Torrens) — who believes Einar may be schizophrenic — wears sinister wire-frame glasses while the good doctor, Warnekros (Sebastian Koch) — who allows Lili to undergo dangerous experimental surgery — has a broad, enlightened smile. For a film about fluidity, this is a rigid work of film-making; offering only manner, however gorgeous, in place of genuine depth.