Now we know. Eddie Redmayne is no miracle worker. He can’t do everything.
He couldn’t possibly have deserved his Oscar more for playing Stephen Hawking in “Theory of Everything.” It was probably a mistake in career management to go right into another taxing radical-remake role playing Lili Elbe, the Dane whose gender realignment surgeries in the Germany of the early ’30s were the first of such surgeries publicly revealed and discussed.
Her real name was Einar Wegener. The story of Einar/Lili is indeed fascinating, but in the era of Bruce/Cait Jenner the film doesn’t begin to do what it really needs to do, as moving as it ultimately becomes.
It illuminates nothing. Even its implied confusion of sexuality and gender identity was revealed to us by Jenner (his desire to become Cait didn’t alter his sexual desire for women, he said, although that may eventually change.)
All we’re able to watch in “The Danish Girl” is Einar/Lili’s story from the outside. When we desperately need Redmayne the actor to internalize those matters he seems to only give us the externals of stunt acting a la Dustin Hoffman, i.e full dress and makeup as a woman and educating himself in the minute particulars of the way women move.
In fact, the most striking scene in the film by far – and a brilliant one it is – shows us the reflection of Redmayne in female clothes in a glass that reveals in a booth on its other side the semi-pornographic sexual display of a model. The moment when the heedless model finally looks at her customer and is suddenly given to understand that her paying voyeur is not there for sexual release but for education in how women move in sexual thrall is quite stunning.
That scene, if any, is worth the price of admission.
So too is the performance of Alicia Vikander playing the sexually liberated ’20s wife of Einar. She is a painter just like Einar. It is her rather sudden need for a female model that forces her supposedly recalcitrant husband to wear female clothing and model for her.
It is from there that she discovers that the man she married and has a sex life with has, from the time he was a boy, felt at home in women’s clothes.
All of this is externalized. Without any sense of internal process, we are left with a compassionate and overly solemn tale of gender dysmorphia, one of the most puzzling conditions there can be for all of us who never think twice about our genders.
We now know all about gender discomfort in the abstract but we know absolutely nothing about why. After seeing the movie, we still don’t. Nor does it help that for a few thousand years, men dressed as women (see, in movies, “Tootsie” and “Some Like It Hot,” not to mention “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Charlie’s Aunt”) have been among the most surefire jokes of our species. The beauty of “Some Like It Hot,” for instance, is that, unlike Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis could almost – almost – feminize his movie star self successfully.
To the degree that Redmayne can in “The Danish Girl”, it is not very persuasive. Lili passes fictionally for female on the street but not entirely in the movie’s audience.
The terrific performance here is by Vikander, as the wife who unwittingly instigated the process of gender transformation and tries to support Lili at every turn.
In the same way that “Rainman” belonged to Tom Cruise in his reactions and not Dustin Hoffman doing the stunt role, “The Danish Girl” belongs to Vikander. It is her allure and full range of emotional reaction that keep us in the movie
This movie, importantly, doesn’t pretend to be based on the facts of the case but rather David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel “The Danish Girl” which fictionalized everything for dramatic purposes. Lili Elbe’s own book was apparently merely consulted.
The cinematography of Europe, both indoors and outdoors, is extraordinarily beautiful. And the film’s last 20 minutes can’t help but be moving.
But the powerful, minutely changing condition we saw as disease in Redmayne in “Theory of Everything” is not duplicated here in its persuasiveness. In “Theory of Everything” we were able to surmise a full and tragic emotional life fully operative beneath the physical transformation.
In “The Danish Girl” we are confined to one dimension. We see only costuming and a mincing walk that comes close to camp. We see resultant tragedy to be sure but nothing else – except in the life of the movie’s real subject, Vikander as “Lili’s” wife.
As powerful as the movie becomes, there’s just not enough here.
3 stars (Out of 4) Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Matthis Schoenarts, Ben Whishaw. Directed by Tom Hooper. 120 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality, full nudity and pervasive adult themes.