Sunday 10 January 2016

Review: Transgender pioneer Lili Elbe is ill-served by Tom Hooper's dull and listless The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts
Running time: 119 mins

I'm not sure how it's possible to make a film this boring about the extraordinary life of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe but somehow Tom Hooper (Les Mis√©rables) has managed it.  

In her previous life as Einar Wegener, Elbe was a celebrated landscape painter and noted bohemian, and that's before she became one of the first people to undergo gender confirmation surgery. So any film made about her should be vibrant and celebratory and have some kind of edge and a bit of oomph to it. In other words, it should be the complete opposite of this painfully dull, wretchedly dour affair, that is low on energy but high on gloom, introspection and long, lingering looks at Denmark's admittedly sumptuous topography. 

Einar and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) are both artists living in 1920s Copenhagen. He's a great success, she's struggling to make a crust with her portraits. When one of Gerda's female life models fails to turn up to a sitting, she gets Einar to put on tights and women's shoes and take her place. It awakens something within him and it isn't long before he is dressing as a woman full-time and renaming himself Lili. Portraits of Elbe finally lead to a career breakthrough for Gerda even as the Einar side of her husband is all but extinguished. Lili decides to undergo groundbreaking but risky surgery to become "entirely herself". 

The whole thing is so polite, inoffensive and British. You half expect Dames Maggie Smith and Judy Dench to pop by for tiffin at any moment. If Hooper directed a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he'd have Leatherface sipping tea and using the word 'exquisite' every five minutes. Bar a couple of bare boobs and a scene in which you almost see Redmayne's 'Little Eddie', this could be a Sunday night TV show on BBC1. Except Call The Midwife is Die Hard by comparison. 

One of the biggest problems with The Danish Girl is Eddie Redmayne, who I just never buy as Lili even for a moment. I'm the silly arse who sat there wiping tears from his eyes at the end of Joy, for god's sake, so the fact he failed to make any emotional connection with a soft touch like me says everything you need to know about his strangely alienating performance. He's all coy glances, nervous smiles and theatrical hand gestures; there's technique in abundance but precious little soul.

Hooper's film is saved from total awfulness by Vikander in what might just be her finest performance since 2012's A Royal Affair, the film in which I first saw her. She sells Gerda's confusion, resentment and heartbreak beautifully, then does the same again as her character comes to accept the situation and undertakes to support her husband even though she knows it means the end of her marriage. That said, the fact she's frequently the movie's beating heart and maybe even the Danish girl of the title, too, does Lili Elbe a profound disservice. Surely this is meant to be her film.

I don't doubt for a minute that Hooper's - and Redmayne's - intentions were good. With the transgender community in the public eye more and more, we need movies sympathetic to their experience and that properly and realistically reflect their lives. The Danish Girl attempts to do those things but sadly comes up very short. Thankfully, superior films addressing these issues already exist (last year's 52 Tuesdays springs to mind), while there's surely a better movie still to be made about Elbe herself.

Rating: W

The Danish Girl is in cinemas now

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthy
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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