It takes a lot of balls to pull off a transgender character. Any asshole can throw on a wig and a dress and go To Wong Fu, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, but rising above the gimmicks of drag takes a much lighter touch. Especially when differentiating between cross-dressers, homosexuals, transsexuals, intersex persons, etc. One wrong step and the critics will have their knives out. That’s the conventional logic, anyway. But as Eddie Redmayne’s tepid and uninspired performance in _The Danish Girl proves, being bland is a far greater cinematic offence than going over the top.
The Danish Girl feels like a film from another time. Not because the story is set in the European high-art scene of the 1920s, but because it treats its subject with such naivety and earnestness that the story itself feels secondary to the premise. Following someone who is born as a man and transitions to a woman is simply not enough to hold an audience’s interest. Twenty years ago, making a film about a transgender pioneer would have certainly ruffled more than a few feathers, and sparked conversations and think-pieces merely by existing. But not in 2015. Not months after Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner, not a couple years after Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing a transgender woman, and not decades after The Rocky Horror Picture Show crossed over into the mainstream. Novelty has given way to nuance. Substance matters, now more than ever.
Which is why the film’s painfully dull execution felt all the more offensive. Redmayne opting to take most of his physical cues from a shy Japanese school girl, covering his mouth as he giggles, always averting his eyes, is a choice that I can live with. Accuracy and subtlety aren’t nearly as important as conveying an emotional truth. At times, your coaching helps him do this effectively, like when he delicately lays dresses across his chest or slides on high heels for the first time. These moments were well-choreographed to communicate sensuality and excitement. It was after Einar became Lili that the film started to feel tragically uninspired and predictable.
The story veers towards calamity, and we can see it coming, but instead of providing a deeper exploration of personal dynamics or ratcheting up the suspense, the narrative is pinned down under the weight of the inevitable tragedy, which becomes stifling to watch. By the time we reach the conclusion, rather than feeling surprised or inspired, it felt as if the filmmakers were simply trying to craft a graceful exit.
The film’s saving grace is Alicia Vikander, playing the conflicted but understanding wife, and equally talented (more so, perhaps) painter. She gives each of her scenes a much needed energy and purpose, propelling the story forward and poignantly conveying mood with a simple look or playful gesture. It may be the more thankless and less showy of the two roles, but it’s certainly the more substantial.
After all, it doesn’t matter how a character moves as long as they move us.