Throughout The Danish Girl, director Tom Hooper’s images always seem to be at arm’s length. Their visual expressions of early-20th-century Brussels and Paris are so self-consciously overstuffed with detail that they merely suggest imitations of life. The film is abundant in deep-focus effects that simplistically, often condescendingly, regard the characters’ agonies. In one shot, the camera reveals a sheet awkwardly bisecting the frame as Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), née Einar Wegener, and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) lie next to each other in bed—as if to remind us that this is a film about multiple separations. In another, Einar and Gerda are symmetrically propped to either side of a hospital building’s corner, the frame achieving a 3D-like excitement that succeeds only at quizzically observing the couple as if they were exhibits in the prettiest morbid anatomy museum in the world.
Based on the story of Elb, the first identifiable person to undergo gender reassignment, The Danish Girl begins innocuously as a portrait of a young husband and wife trying to eke out a living as painters. The postcard-pretty landscapes that open the story are ultimately revealed to be sights from Einar’s youth that influence his work, but the past here exists only as a nebulous, sentimentalized sphere within which Einar once shared a kiss with his best friend. Hooper may be more fixated with Gerda’s process, but the torments that inform her prosaic brushstrokes also remain foreign to us. The filmmakers’ interest in Einar and Gerda’s work begins and ends with the former’s crisis of identity triggering the latter’s success.
Every aspect of The Danish Girl gives the impression of being an unspontaneous illustration of a script element. Neither Redmayne nor Vikander, both technically impressive, are ever allowed to toss off their characters’ expressions of joy and frustration. Both actors are at the mercy of a screenplay that stiffly and aggressively insists on pointing to its themes of identity and confusion with every line of dialogue (“It was like kissing myself,” Gerda remembers of the time she first locked lips with Einar). Redmayne and Vikander are practically forced into a self-aware, literal-minded mode of performance, delivered across frames so luridly decorous and abundant in displays of forced angularity that their characters often feel as if they’ve been shoehorned into a period noir of Ryan Murphy’s imagination.
Worse, though, than the almost unintentional distancing effects of The Danish Girl’s texturelessly ornate melodrama is its infuriatingly jejune understanding of Einar’s crisis of identity. If there’s no sense of the Lili that lies suffocating beneath Einar’s host body at the start of the film, it’s because Hooper believes that Redmayne’s androgynous beauty is enough to hint at Einar’s gender dysphoria. Posing for Gerda in women’s stockings and shoes, Einar balks at wearing a dress, until the feel of the fabric shakes him to the core of his being. After which one slow-motion caress of fabric leads to another, and soon Einar is peering through clothing racks at his glamourous ballerina friend, Ulla (Amber Heard), and, finally, imagining what he would look like as a woman by pushing his penis between his legs.
One doesn’t doubt the filmmakers’ empathy for Lili even as one questions its sentimentality. The fascination that the connoisseurs and dilettantes of the art world have for her peculiar beauty, thus pushing her to come out of her shell, can’t help but feel like wishful thinking. Even the men closest to Lili—Henrik (Ben Whishaw), a gay man who finds solace in their friendship, and Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), her childhood best friend—are beacons of all-knowing, consoling light. The Danish Girl may cater to stereotypes of femininity, but at least the feminine self that Lili adopts, all obvious signifiers, in search of objectification feels credibly rooted in the story’s time period. But the preternaturally sympathetic way with which the world responds to her is precious fantasy. In so clearly viewing her through the lens of 21st-century political correctness, the film only blunts the resolve of her struggle.