With his lush settings, yieldingly gentle tones and exquisite sense of visual design, director Tom Hooper has developed something of a house style. Having directed “The King’s Speech” and “Les Misérables,” the filmmaker has emerged as someone who’s less instinctively cinematic than pictorial, not communicating by way of moving images, but by creating backdrops — usually involving an artfully distressed wall — for high-toned, affecting performances.
All of Hooper’s strengths and weaknesses are on display in “The Danish Girl,” a tasteful, tender but oddly inert portrait of the early transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, who when the movie opens in 1920s Copenhagen, is a modestly well-known painter named Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne). Together with his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who is also a painter, Wegener enjoys a life of bohemian self-expression, if not hedonism. They genuinely love each other, even when he wistfully touches his wife’s camisoles, or adjusts her lipstick for her, and a frisson flutters to life. When Gerda asks Einar to slip on a pair of women’s shoes and stockings to help her finish a portrait that she’s working on, something clicks. On a lark, they attend a party as two women, where Einar playfully assumes the identity of Lili. From then on, the character abandons the mantle of Einar, eventually accepting the challenge to undergo risky sex-reassignment surgery to “correct a mistake of nature.”
On the most crude level, “The Danish Girl” gives audiences a chance to see Redmayne transform himself into a woman, a form of gender-bending striptease that has been made much of in the film’s trailers and preliminary Oscar talk. (Earlier this year he won the Academy Award for best actor for his similarly transformative portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”) Not surprisingly, the fey, boyishly handsome British actor becomes a preternaturally beautiful woman. His Lili resembles a sort of Art Nouveau Jessica Chastain, coquettishly posing and flirting behind shy smiles and batting eyelashes. But the most galvanizing performance in “The Danish Girl” is Vikander’s loving, confused, spiky and deeply sympathetic Gerda, who as a female artist and wife is grappling with her own set of expectations and strictures. “The Danish Girl,” it turns out, is less about Elbe’s interior journey than about twinned artistic ambitions and a strikingly progressive marriage, during which the two work out a modus operandi of living, working and loving together, at least for a while.
When Gerda begins to paint Lili, her career takes off, with dealers and viewers intrigued by the enigmatic figure in the pictures. As Lili begins to settle into her identity as a woman, her gaze turns outward, to the world of signs, gestures and unspoken cues of which she’s now a part. (One of the film’s most memorable scenes features Redmayne mimicking a sex worker in a Parisian peep show, each head tilt and caress becoming a new word and phrase to master.) Doppelgangers, lovers, pals, competitors, Gerda and Lili inhabit a story that takes on the contours of an intimate hall of mirrors, as their personae split, double, fuse and split again.
For all of the virtuosity of Redmayne and Vikander’s performances, and for all its sensitivity and aesthetic appeal, “The Danish Girl” is content simply to present the ambiguities and contradictions of Lili and Gerda’s story, rather than delve into their gnarlier corners. Just as Lili looks to gestures and outward appearances to reveal and express her essential self, the movie stays on the surface of things, presenting its protagonists as paragons of enlightenment, loyalty and love, but leaving the viewer with the sense that the full story was probably far more complex. Dripping with sensitivity and prestige, armored in impeccable taste and unquestionably attractive visual values, “The Danish Girl” is a Tom Hooper production all the way, including performances that arrive with Oscar predictions at the ready. Those aren’t necessarily bad things, but they’re not the only things, either. “The Danish Girl” is a very pretty picture that could have used a more probing, maybe even more painful, palette knife.
R. At area theaters. Contains some sexuality and nudity. 119 minutes.