Tom Hooper has made several films about men playing roles. 2009’s The Damned United concerned the managerial exploits of Brian Clough (Martin Sheen), a legend of football who alpha-ed his way to the top of a fiercely competitive business. The King’s Speech (2010) was, at its core, a film about a man learning to play a role he felt unfit for: unlike Brian Clough, George VI was skeptical about power and status. The film portrays him as a begrudging king, uncomfortable with a crown that will make him into the sovereign.
In a sense, The Danish Girl (2015) completes an unofficial trilogy about the male gender. We’ve seen those who embody the combative self-reliance that ‘manhood’ is thought to entail and we’ve seen those less certain about its occasional play-acting; now, we get a portrait of a ‘man’ who slowly comes to hate ‘his’ body and the quirk of fate that sometimes assigns us to the wrong skin altogether. Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a celebrated landscape painter who regrets that his wife and fellow painter Gerda (Alicia Vikander) has been unable to find acclaim. He wants to help her any way he can and, when a model is unavailable, offers to pose in female dress. This inspires a period of experimentation in which he slowly embraces a new identity – ‘Lili’ – except, we learn that Lili is not new at all, she’s been there all the time and Lili must now come to terms with a transition which will put her entire life into jeopardy.
The film is masterfully composed and boasts two strong central performances that will undoubtedly merit their certain Academy recognition. Lili’s struggle is one of intense pathos – it commands our attention and our sympathy from start to finish – and the film is technically as good as it gets. If there is one major criticism, however, that seems inevitable, it is this: the film plays it pretty safe. This is a story of radical alterity that gets the chocolate-box treatment. Whether or not that’s a bad thing is really a matter of opinion, but it can’t be denied that there is unexplored potential here for a conversation about gender and art which is largely left untroubled. The Danish Girl is certainly an ambitious piece of filmmaking in many respects but for some it won’t quite be ambitious enough.