Tom Hooper’s Transgender Character Piece Visually Soars, Narratively Crashes
DIRECTOR: TOM HOOPER/2015
I read a quote recently that made the point that when a director is flailing, he becomes either a photographer or an art director. Case in point: Tom Hooper‘s The Danish Girl.
The film is every bit as sumptuous to look at and to live in as Hooper‘s Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. Yet as The Danish Girl unspools, the emotional disconnect only grows more and more. It’s 1926 Copenhagen, and Eddie Redmayne is happily married to Alicia Vikander. They are both painters of fine art, he the more successful of the two. One day, when her female model is unable to make it to a session, she recruits her husband to wear the stockings and dress and pose for her. Something is triggered in him, and from this point on, the film becomes about his eventual journey to early transgender surgery, and their struggle as a couple to understand this.
“Understanding” is the keyword here. In an age nearly 90 years after the film takes place, we are only now coming around to publicly understand the ramifications of what it is to be transgender. But still, it remains a vastly misunderstood and unknown quantity. Understanding Redmayne’s fundamental need to transition from male to female is at the very center of the story. This is where it fails terribly.
Amid the several slow, sweeping moments of him privately embracing women’s clothing and make up and wigs, and the several trailer-worthy lines of dialogue that are uttered, the film still manages to fall short. If the point is that a transgender person’s journey is impossible for someone else to understand, even that is not made clear.
“The Danish Girl”, as far as disasters go, is an immaculatly compelling disaster.
Tom Hooper delivers more than 100% on his trademark asymmetrical framing, tactile textures, period detail, and occasional wide angle distortion as metaphor. One can tell that the creators of the film spent a lot of time on period research. This is what makes the film primarily worth seeing.
That said, the lead performances are pretty terrific as well. Particularly good is Alicia Vikander as the long-suffering wife. Vikander rounds out an amazing year in which she hit the scene hard in Ex Machina, starred in several films since, and now gets to steal the show from last year’s Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne.
In a year when transgender issues penetrated the mainstream for the first time, The Danish Girl, despite its opulence and cost, is the least of the cinematic offerings. Tangerine, an iPhone-shot indie with non-actors in the leads, is a far more effective piece of work, and French auteur François Ozon’s intriguingly flawed The New Girlfriend is far more memorable cinema.
Watching Tom Hooper indulge his painterly eye for framing and detail is always a pleasure. Here’s hoping that next time, the story he choses to apply these skills to doesn’t get lost in the exquisite palatte.