Alicia Vikander Amber Heard

The Danish Girl Review: Style Obscuring Substance

Monday, December 14, 2015 Rob Samuelson

The Danish Girl

Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: David Ebershoff
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Eddie Redmayne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard
Rating: Two and a half stars out of five
Available in theaters now.

The Danish Girl is a movie about choices, both before and behind the camera. Within the film itself, it appears, for all the pain and confusion that follows the choice, the right one was made. It's a different story beyond the scope of the biopic account of 1920s artist – and first known recipient of sex reassignment surgery – Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), formerly known as Einar Wegener, and Wegener's wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). Director Tom Hooper makes a series of stylistic and structural decisions that, almost without fail, work to hinder and/or muddle the thematic meaning, and sometimes the motivation, of these characters. He complicates a story that, for all the difficulty that comes in deciding to fully become who you are inside, is at its core still simple – not easy, but clear.

It makes sense why Hooper would do the things he does, because he has it in him to put beautifully evocative images on the screen, given the right context. The problem is, he often does not utilize the context in a way that makes sense for the cinematic language that has developed over the last century-plus. Precedents matter, and when a filmmaker mistakes the meaning of a shot choice, it can wreak havoc on the message that director wants to convey. This happens often throughout the two-hour runtime of The Danish Girl, but there are three in the early going that unbalance it in a way that it struggles to recover from.

It is a wordless sequence near the beginning of the film, with Redmayne's Einar wandering through the costume racks of a local ballet company in Copenhagen, touching the women's clothing that surrounds him, yearning for the femininity that the audience knows from the film's subject matter is inside him. If Hooper had stopped this scene here, all would be well. However, he keeps going, allowing Einar to stumble upon Amber Heard's Ulla, a ballerina friend of his and Gerda's, as she is hard at work practicing while being fitted for the right costume. If the costume had been the focus of the subsequent series of shots, it would have paired with Einar's seconds-earlier fascination with the clothing rack, but it is not. Ulla as a whole is the focus, with the camera pulled back in a voyeuristic medium-wide shot. Einar watches her dance, sees the costumer's hands grasping Ulla's body, and the longing music plays on the soundtrack. Hooper is likely trying to showcase Einar's longing for the feminine shape, but it reads as the classic male gaze moment. It feels something like a less sleazy Brian De Palma movie, seemingly revealing romantic, or at least lustful, feelings for Ulla. That is not the case for the character, of course. Einar is not a lascivious peeping Tom, as becomes apparent throughout the rest of the film, but in this moment it looks like he could be, obfuscating who this person is in the context of the movie.

Likewise for Einar's relationship with Gerda. For someone confused about his gender identity, Einar reads as something of a horn dog while he and Gerda attempt to get pregnant. Later intimate scenes between them reveal stronger thematic ties to Einar's interior life, but the first is like a pair of teenagers fooling around in the most gender-stereotypical way. It doesn't make sense.

The same can be said for the film's statement-of-purpose scene, when Gerda, an artist like her husband, requests that Einar act as a stand-in for one of her portraits of Ulla. He must wear stockings on his legs and hold the dress close to his body for Gerda to get the pose right in her piece. This is treated like a big reveal, a lightbulb moment that crystalizes Einar's real identity in his mind, but it feels false in the moment. That is because it is false, given information Hooper has already displayed, and a later admittance that Lili, the woman Einar would become, had always had avenues to get out, even as a young child.

Even with unclear filmmaking surrounding her, Vikander gives The Danish Girl graceful life at its center. She imbues Gerda with a character arc that goes beyond line reading and facial expression. She begins bouncy in her movements, perhaps slightly self-conscious and more than a little mischievous, the kind of person who might hide behind a corner to surprise you with tickles. As things deteriorate for her understanding of what her marriage would be, she moves with more strain, the light in her eyes turns to something more like a blanket of black velvet. She never loses her tenderness for the person she chose to spend her life with when she thought she was getting a better deal. Her support for Einar's choice to live as Lili, despite never having been provided the cultural understanding of such a decision, is kindness at its best.

Unfortunately, The Danish Girl lets down its lead actress with choices like the stylistic ones above and a bizarre structure that incorporates two climaxes. It never fully gets back to the level of dramatic tension after the first climax, and the second feels more like an obligation to complete the life story of these two people rather than a necessary piece of the film. It is not without its excellence, but The Danish Girl is a disappointment for how most of its issues are avoidable with a slight change of purpose behind the camera. 

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