Every Oscar season there seems to be a few movies that I’m not particularly excited to see. Oscar nominees tend to be on the heavy and depressing side as a rule and sometimes it’s just hard to gin up a lot of excitement of sitting through something that you know is going to bum you out. It cans sometimes feel a little bit like homework. Of course, there are some years when I resent my valiant attempt every year to see every single nominated film because I know ahead of time that I’m not going to enjoy a film; I still hold a grudge against the Academy for the year that they made me watch Iron Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. What a slog they was.
This year, The Danish Girl was a film that I wasn’t super psyched for, but that had more to do with the logistics of going to the movie than the actual film itself. It was only showing at one theater in the area by the time the nominations were announced and it was down to two screenings a day. Admittedly if I was more psyched about seeing The Danish Girl this probably wouldn’t have been such a hurdle for me, but with the weather turning colder it’s harder to get me out of the house. I knew once I got to the theater that I’d be fine, but getting there was the challenge.
The Danish Girl tells the story of married artists Einar Wegender (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) in 1920s Copenhagen. Standing in for a female model for one of Gerda’s paintings forces Einar to come to terms with the fact that he has always identified with being a woman. He begins to live life as Lili Elbe, first tentatively and then leaving Einar completely behind as Gerda tries to support the man that she loves even as he no longer exists. Lili eventually becomes one of the first people to have sex reassignment surgery. This is a gorgeously shot movie that handles the topic with respect and grace, but ultimately the film feels too removed from these characters for the viewer to really connect with them.
I’m not at all surprised that Eddie Redmayne was nominated for his performance of Einar/Lili, as this is exactly the type of performance that the Academy loves. However, I’d argue that the true powerhouse performance of this movie doesn’t belong to him, but to his co-star Alicia Vikander. She’s the heart and soul of this movie and is the only actor that takes any chances or brings any real depth to these characters, While I’m glad that she also received a nomination, she should have been considered as a lead actress rather than supporting; in my opinion, she carries this movie and The Danish Girl is a much better movie when she’s on screen. You can’t take your eyes off her as Gerda tries to navigate this new reality that has been foisted upon her. Though on the surface Redmayne’s role is the showier of the two, Vikander is what makes this movie so memorable. She’s having quite a year, between this performance and her excellent work in Ex Machina.
This is not to say that Redmayne’s performance is poor, but that it is not all that accessible. There’s a lot of times when you aren’t quite sure what Lili or Einar are really thinking or feeling. The character is never fully developed, especially when compared to Vikander’s depiction of Gerda. Redmayne does a beautiful job with portraying Lili’s vulnerability and he fully commits to the physical transformation as Einar discovers Lili, but it just doesn’t have the same depth or nuance of Vikander’s performance. The Danish Girl is only a cursory exploration of Lili’s emotional journey; Redmayne’s depiction is technically wonderful, but for me it was just missing the passion of the work that Vikander is doing. For me, Redmayne relies too heavily on his smile to convey emotion; I had this complaint with his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything, for which he won the Oscar, so I might be the outlier in this particular complaint.
The Danish Girl is gorgeously filmed; Tom Hooper allows the camera to linger on some of the beautiful costumes and imagery from this period pieces. Some of the shots in this film are definitely breathtaking and the cinematography only serves to elevate the story. In some scenes, you feel like you may be lost in a Degas painting, with the perfectly frames shots of the ballerina’s tulle and the catwalks.
I enjoyed The Danish Girl but have to admit that I was not as blown away or moved by it as I expected to be. I have to wonder if the movie suffers a bit due to the change in awareness of LGBT issues; in a world before Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, the desire to make a restrained movie about this subject that would appeal to mainstream audiences probably made sense. However, attitudes have changed quite a bit even in the last 12 months and while as a society we surely aren’t completely there yet, I think more people would have been open to a more nuanced and intimate movie about Lili Elbe. Unfortunately, despite Vikander’s best efforts, The Danish Girl is too far removed from its subject to provide anything other than a somewhat water downed version of Lili’s story. Everything looks pretty and all the actors do a nice enough job, but by holding the story at arm’s length, it’s too hard for the viewer to truly connect with the film. The Danish Girl is good, but it could have been better.