Tom Hooper might’ve made a great painter. Like the protagonists of his latest film, Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), he has an eye for colour and composition that produces some memorable images. But cinema is about more than striking individual images; it’s about, among many other things, how images combine and contrast to create an effect in the audience and, in that respect, The Danish Girl is sorely lacking.
This is maybe one of the worst-edited films I’ve seen in a while, and not (necessarily) through any fault of editor Melanie Oliver, who collaborated with Hooper on Les Misérables. We cut from one striking image to another without any path for our eye to follow; in one shot a character is framed to the far right of the screen, in the next they’re in the centre of the screen, obscured by the something in the foreground. In another scene, an apparently uninterrupted conversation occurs across three entirely different settings. The net effect is unintentionally distancing. It’s like watching one discrete moment after another rather than a continuous stream of events.
Form typically follows function, so it’s maybe not a surprise that Hooper’s disorienting approach to directing is shared with his uneven approach to his subject material: the life of Lili (formerly Einar Wegenar), one of the world’s first recorded recipients of sex change surgery. The scattershot storyboarding is intermittently effective; it works when composing a montage (as of Lili trying on women’s clothing with the assistance of Gerda) or when cutting a sex – or sexually-charged – scene, where individual touches and gestures justifiably overwhelm the scene’s coherency. This is consistent with The Danish Girl’s take on transgender issues: eroticisation, exoticisation but no real attempt at understanding.
Lili’s character is cobbled together from familiar pieces – fetishised fashion, cross-dressing ‘humour’ (à la Tootsie et al), societal shame and, ultimately, the familiar, old-fashioned tragic queer narrative – but it never coheres into a complete portrait of a real person. She’s present as someone to pity, not someone to understand. Redmayne does her character no favours with his decision to play the role with a flighty vagueness, his watery hazel eyes drifting about unfocused in every second scene. I thought he deserved his Oscar for The Theory of Everything, but here he’s unable to pull together a role already undermined by weak screenwriting.
Thankfully, Vikander provides some needed solidity as Gerda, anchoring a performance that could have easily been strained into ridiculousness (she spends about half the movie tearing up, yet it never feels like she’s populating an Oscar reel). That said, it’s testament to The Danish Girl’s misguided approach that it’s far easier to sympathise with her character than it is Lili. In theory the two characters are equal protagonists (the title could refer to either of them), but in practice the film edges towards Gerda’s side of the ledger.
Early in the film, Lili’s would-be suitor (Ben Whishaw) describes her as “old-fashioned.” It’s intended as a compliment, but it’s hardly complimentary to observe that The Danish Girl feels like a film from a couple decades ago. This is a creaky queer prestige picture, burdened with once-progressive, now-tired ideas. It’s not enough to usher transgender icons into the spotlight only to pity them, to sympathise with their suffering rather than the whole of their lived experienced. In 2015, we should expect a complete portrait, not a clumsy collection of potentially pretty paintings.