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USA/United Kingdom 2015
Directed by
Tom Hooper
120 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

The Danish Girl

Synopsis: In 1920s Copenhagen, celebrated landscape painter Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) comes to believe that he is really a woman and begins a new life as Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) culminating in gender reassignment surgery. 

With his latest film one is tempted to describe director Tom Hooper as a fool rushing in where angels would fear to tread.  Its idea is a tantalizing one but how to pull it off?  Only a brilliant performance by the actor playing the central role could withstand the scrutiny of the camera and keep the film from becoming a farce. Unfortunately, Eddie Redmayne is not that actor. For a male, yes, he has exceptionally fine features and an androgynous figure and in principle he was a good choice for the role. His Oscar-winning embodiment of the physical transformation of Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything was unquestionably a marvellous achievement. But here thanks to Lucinda Coxon’s dutiful script, based on a novel by David Ebershoff, and Tom Hooper’s decorous helming he has little to work with. With really only two tricks up his sleeve, either toothily smiling and batting his eyelids coquettishly or being overwhelmed by attacks of the female vapours, once Einar starts fondling his wife’s silk stockings that’s really as much as we get with respect to male/female transformation and for the rest of the film we are treated to little else other than a blow-by-blow account of the events leading up to his surgery. 

Part of the problem is that Redmayne is playing opposite Alicia Vikander who is so naturally and exquisitely feminine that he can’t help but look like an unconvincing approximation of the ideal.  And this is a problem, as Hooper wants us to accept Lili as such, as apparently her social circle did, when Redmayne, ironically so given his androgynous appeal when dressed as a man looks like a rather horsily masculine cross-dresser camping it up. Frankly Dustin Hoffman did a better job of playing a woman in Tootsie(1982).

Lili’s unconvincing appearance is only exaggerated by the immaculate, high-end production design which tends to stifle or substitute for any sense of real-life actuality. Vikander as Einar’s wife, Gerda, is very good in bringing home the confusion and sense of rejection that Gerda feels but after a while one tires of her fabulous ’20s outfits whilst her relationship with Einar’s childhood friend (Matthias Schoenaerts) comes across as a purely Mills and Boonish invention.  But this is precisely the problem with the film – Hooper had such a rich source of dramatic substance, one with multiple levels of interest, to explore but he gives us instead an elegant but hermetic and essentially conventionally-realized film which, at best, fails to connect with what was a highly unusual situation. At worst, it skirts the faintly ridiculous.  And, particularly given the story’s outcome, one can’t help but think there was much more to be said from medical and legal point of view about the radically innovative surgery that Einar undergoes but which here is given scant attention. .

FYI: For a much more effective look at gender-reassignment check out TransAMERICA (2005).




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