The regal, prim approach writer Lucinda Coxon (Wild Target) and director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) take to adapting this fascinating true story may make it ultimately feel like half-missed opportunity, but Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander’s electric central performances nevertheless make it difficult to look away.
In mid-1920s Copenhagen, revered artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) reluctantly agrees to stand in as a female model for a portrait being painted by his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). This moment awakens a repressed yearning in Einar, his desire to assume the personal and sexual identity of a woman named Lili Elbe and leave Einar behind, all while Gerda tries to come to terms with the gradual disappearance of the man she married.
It’s a fascinating premise for a film and is certainly well-timed given the terrific in-steps made by the trans movement over the last year or so, yet Coxon and Hooper may have been the wrong combination of artists to bring this story to the screen. Hooper’s visual compositions with his regular DP Danny Cohen are as beautiful and distinctive as ever – marked by Hooper’s usual off-center framing – yet rather than immerse us in the viscerally emotional and physical brutality of Einar’s transformation into Lili, we would feel strangely distanced if not for Redmayne’s absolutely splendid, material-transcending work in the role.
A year after he won the Best Actor Oscar for his transformative turn as Stephen Hawking, Redmayne does it again, though the limitations of the script prevent him from digging in as deep dramatically as he does with the role’s surface demands. Just as much attention is laid on his suffering wife, played with sure aplomb by rising star Vikander, who ably realises the psychological torment which her character’s predicament would naturally invite, a mixture of anger, confusion, frustration and ultimately pride at Lili’s choice. It’s just a shame that Redmayne isn’t gifted quite as much depth on the page to entrench himself in.
At 119 minutes in length it frequently dawdles and feels far too sanitised to be a movie that could truly understand the mind of a trans person, but Redmayne and Vikander, along with their supporting players (Ben Whishaw and Matthias Schoenaerts in particular), knock it out of the park. It doesn’t realise its potential overall, but is a mostly compelling offering all the same.
The Danish Girl is in US cinemas December 25th and UK cinemas January 1st