The Danish Girl: The Girl with the Silk Stocking, by David Bax
If you’re going to have an awards season, you’re going to have some mediocre biopics in there. Last year, we got both Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game and the eventual Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Now Redmayne is back to portray transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (though this one is based on a fictionalized novel of her life and therefore not strictly a biopic) in Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. It should clearly be the favorite in the category of mediocre but heavily awarded prestige films this year. Except that Hooper and his collaborators don’t even rise to the level of mediocrity. The Danish Girl is just plain bad.
Einar Wegener, Lili’s earlier name, is a noted artist in 1920s Copenhagen whose wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), is initially excited about Lili’s coming into bloom. But, as the person she thought she knew and loved begins to disappear, Gerda is torn between her compassion for Lili’s emotional challenges and her bitterness at being increasingly abandoned in her marriage.
The first signs of trouble come from Lucinda Coxon’s half-baked screenplay, which manages to – one hopes inadvertently – suggest that Lili had no idea that she was a woman until she happened to try on some silk stockings for the first time. Eventually, and thankfully, shades of her childhood are filled in that correct the impression. Yet the naïve awkwardness of those early scenes persists for roughly half the film’s length and then lingers after
The two leads don’t help matters. Redmayne apparently thinks acting like a woman mostly consists of touching one’s own face a lot. And Vikander, who was fantastic in A Royal Affair and this year’s Ex Machina, often seems to be pitched at the wrong frequency. In the early scenes of Lili coming out, as it were, Vikander is like the sassy best friend in a contemporary romantic comedy.
Hooper has received a surplus of criticism in the past for his lens and framing choices; tell someone you’ve seen The Danish Girl and they will often ask, “How much fisheye is there?” Yet, compared to the inept fumbling of the rest of the picture, the appearance of the movie comes across as refreshingly well-considered. Reteaming with his Les Misérables and The King’s Speech cinematographer Danny Cohen, Hooper shoves Lili-as-Einar into the corner of the frame, dominated by her paintings of the countryside where she grew up or by the art world cognoscenti who praise them. But when she looks down at dancer friend Oona (Amber Heard) through a costume rack on a catwalk, Lili/Einar’s face is vignetted by white, feathery garments, an impactful reminiscence of the old Hollywood halo effect.
Still, the aesthetic choices in The Danish Girl – including great clothes for Redmayne, Vikander, Heard and Matthias Schoenaerts – are not enough to overpower the undercooked movie they adorn. If it weren’t for Hooper’s arch framing and presentation, it would look like they shot rehearsals of the first draft.