In a year that has seen both triumphs and losses for the transgender community, we are now closing it out with a look at one of the first recipients of a sex-change operation, Lili Elbe, portrayed in yet another immaculate performance by Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. It is a film that is as daring and bold as it is delicate and subtle; but while it features masterful acting and exquisite cinematography, it has a noticeable lack of cohesion in its screenplay and its emotion, ultimately making it feel like a phenomenally-acted movie that doesn’t have much else to offer.
With love triangles, a marriage that gets put through the ringer, and a highly-sensitive subject, it is to be expected that this movie should be rife with tension, passionate emotions, and heartbreak. Yet Tom Hooper, who has succeeded in these period pieces and evoking intense emotions, seems to not care for emotions or big moments, which is underlined by the amount of significant events that happen off-screen such as issues with the marriage and the surgery itself.
We become invested in the marriage between Lili and Gerda (played by Alicia Vikander), but we can never guess what is going on in the heads of these two people who are undergoing major changes in their lives. Some sort of narration would have been helpful, especially since Lili herself writes a journal—which is usually a big cue for an inner-dialogue to be going on throughout the movie, but it remains completely nonexistent.
So while the story putters along like a broken record that only plays portions of their lives while skipping over other—seemingly important—matters, we are carried through by some of the best acting to hit the screen this year. There’s no denying that Redmayne is essentially the Daniel Day Lewis of our generation—he dives deep into a role (he prepared for over a year for this one) and becomes it. There are moments, when he is Lili, where you forget that you’re even watching Redmayne. He inhabits whoever he is portraying and, like his turn as Stephen Hawking from last year, reminds us why method acting is so damn good. He is—as I’m sure every other review will say—truly transformative.
Vikander is also a powerhouse, turning in her final performance of the year after she nailed every other role, and it is perhaps her best out of the handful that includes Ex-Machina, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Burnt, and Testament of Youth. Gerda is strong and supportive, but it feels like they could have had her dig a lot deeper than she does especially since we don’t quite see how much the transformation effects her. We get brief moments and signs of change, but for how impactful this must’ve been, we’re left wanting far more.
With focusing on a transgender woman, the matter is handled with deft care. It really shows what transgender people go through in trying to become the person they want to be, which is more important—I think—than trying to give a lecture on the subject. It allows for a humanized look at the subject, and to witness a form of the transition—though there will always be the argument of whether or not the star should be someone who belongs to the community. It shows instances of violence, bullying, and fear; but there is no judgement. Hooper allows for a beautiful transition to take place to let Lili become the woman she has dreamt of being.
The Danish Girl is a hard one to call. While it excels with masterclass performances, gorgeous cinematography, and a beautiful look at the struggles many people go through every day in silence and fear, it also feels devoid of a lot of necessary emotions and pain for the subject matter. Nevertheless, any performance from Redmayne at this point in his career is a necessity to see—as with Vikander—so you might just do yourself a favor and witness a young master at work.