In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
What makes a Tom Hooper movie? Well, as I understand it, first we need a compelling story idea. Second, we need stellar production design. Third, we need earth-shaking performances from the world’s finest actors. Finally, we need it all to culminate in a bland, unremarkable movie. With this criteria in place, I am pleased to report that The Danish Girl is most definitely a Tom Hooper movie, and despite being passable entertainment, it really feels like a missed opportunity. At a time when the transgendered voice is finally being heard, it seems strange that a film about a trans-pioneer can fall so flat, while a film like Tangerine – which really doesn’t make a such a ‘thing’ about gender – says so much more.
This isn’t to say that The Danish Girl is an entirely empty experience. There is a wealth of value here, most of which comes through in the performances. Eddie Redmayne, whose Oscar-winning* performance in The Theory of Everything will always be known as “the one that robbed Michael Keaton,” puts in yet another example of why he’s currently one of the best in the business. His transformation from male to female is nothing if not genuine. Much in the same way that he seemed to actually contract MS while portraying Stephen Hawking, it genuinely appears as if Redmayne underwent gender transition. The amount of work he puts into his roles is admirable. Shame that it’s at the center of such a sleepy film.
The thing is, even with such a revelatory performance anchoring the film, Redmayne is overshadowed by Alicia Vikander in a very big way. As the spouse of the man undergoing such a massive change, her role runs the risk of being a sideline player. To compare to The Theory of Everything yet again, the spousal figure seemed to be merely along for the ride (not a discredit to Felicity Jones, who was wonderful), while Vikander’s Gerda Wegener is a complete character, with a life outside of her husband. Yes, she is fighting to hold on to the love she and her significant other share, but she will not sacrifice her own goals and values to do so. Vikander plays Gerda as a canny woman who will stand by her man, but will not let him stand in her way. Even so, she is true to the time period. She doesn’t feel like a transplant.
This brings me to my big problem with the film. The time. Yes, it’s a period piece, but I do not know what period. It might even say so explicitly at some point, but at the end of the day it is a standard, boilerplate “period piece.” As Elinar slowly becomes Lili, there are hints about what this means in a world where transgenderism is not a known phenomenon, but the film never really goes there. Instead it chooses to focus on the evolution of the romance between Gerda and Lili … yet it never really goes there either. The film walks the line in a way that is so broad, so desirous of mass appeal, that it effectively says nothing. You would think that even without some sort of posturing the content would create a compelling message by nature, but all I can gather in terms of the film’s thesis is “this happened, and isn’t Eddie Redmayne really good?” It’s not enough.
The Danish Girl is a Thomas Kinkade painting set into motion – supremely crafted, but absent of substance.
*and deserving, despite being at the heart of an only decent film.
The Danish Girl opens in Philly theaters today.