Tom Hooper has downscaled. Les Miserables gave him a revolution and The King’s Speech gave him the adoring masses, but here, in this intimate portrait of a family of two stretching its love around a newly blossoming identity, there’s no crowd. At most, there’s a subset of European art buyers who flit in and out of the background, but Hooper has hinged his tale, necessarily, on a detailed portrait of the lives of two women – one of whom was born a man.
Lucinda Coxton’s screenplay follows the Wegeners’ marriage. To begin with, Gerda (Alicia Vikander) and Einar (Eddie Redmayne) are almost heteronormatively married – artists who play with the boundaries of gender subversion, she’s confident and he’s unthreatened by that, and there’s an indisputably erotic thrill when husband comes to bed in wife’s silk chemise. But what soon reveals itself is that Einar’s cross-dressing alter ego, Lili Elbe, is much more than a fantasy brought out to liven up social soirees. Einar, in fact, is not really Einar at all: Einar is simply the shell of the man who has trapped Lili in the wrong body.
There’s an interplay here between what’s topical and what’s historical, and the movie is sensible enough to understand it must try to service both. Transgender equality, in the age of Transparent, may well be a burgeoning political motivation in arts and entertainment, and one could be forgiven for demanding something a little more incendiary from this film. The sequence in which Lili confronts the endlessly pathologising and ostracising diagnoses of various doctors seems to skirt slickly over the surface of what could only have been a harrowing experience. Instead, here is a sweetness and light – an anti-radicalism, if you will – which may well be Hooper’s film trying to find mainstream appeal by situating the movie’s aesthetic firmly in the realm of standardly-sumptuous period drama.
Hooper’s handling of his subject matter is sensitive to the point of saccharine in some places: certainly there are moments when Alexandre Desplat’s score, a soaring cacophony of sweeping violins, wrenches emotions out of the viewer when perhaps it would have been less condescending to let them feel for themselves. But it ought to be commended for its understanding of how to bring the most out of the complicated relationship between bodies, identities, and wardrobes. The Guardian found Hooper and designer Paco Delgado’s handling of costumes in this film to be verging precariously on the edge of pantomime, and yes, there is an unnerving focus on the tactility of fabrics. However, what such thinking supposes, rather inaccurately, is that costume is not the most integral way in which humans find self-expression. It’s not so much that the costumes in this movie conceal its heart, but that they provide a very real, very relatable access point for Lili’s identity.
In the end, The Danish Girl functions best as an excellent vehicle for two of the brightest acting talents of our current generation. Both Redmayne and Vikander are naturally luminous, and both have an acute knack for understanding the possibilities contained in the actor’s body. Redmayne’s performance here is less technically demanding than his Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawking, but in some ways it demands a different and more compelling brand of compassion from him. Vikander, meanwhile, continues her ascent. The actress has a kind of unique, almost brash physicality, something which is so refreshingly un-Hollywood. She isn’t afraid of filling a frame with gestures and energy, a technique, it seems, that movies have been ousting out of women since Katherine Hepburn. Together, she and Redmayne are something of a match made in cinematic heaven. Awards await.