Danish Girl, Venice Film Festival 2015 review: Lacking the expected emotional kick

Dir: Tom Hooper, starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw

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In British films, when men dress as women it’s invariably a source of pantomime-style mirth, but there is very little Widow Twankey-slapstick about Tom Hooper’s new feature. The Danish Girl (which just premiered in Venice) is a delicately crafted, sad and strangely muted story. Its main character is Danish artist Einar Wegener, who feels that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body.

Einar, who becomes an early recipient of sex reassignemt surgery, is played with extraordinary sensitivity and dignity by Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar and Golden Globe for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and may well be in the running for such awards again. He is a quiet and seemingly passive character, but one who notices and feels everything.

First encountered in 1920s Copenhagen, Einar is a successful painter, specialising in landscapes. He is happily married to fellow artist, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). They live together in a beautiful apartment that doubles as their studio and are part of the city’s bohemian subculture. They love each other, dote on their little Jack Russell and appear content. Then comes the transformative moment when Gerda asks Einar to pose in her stockings for a painting she has been working on of a ballerina. He discovers he takes an intense pleasure in wearing women’s clothes.

At the same time that Einar is beginning to explore gender identity, Gerda too is defying stereotypes. She enjoys discomfiting male sitters for her portraits by subjecting them to her steely woman’s gaze. She smokes cigarettes from a holder. She is the active partner in her relationship with her husband. Vikander is excellent as this devoted and fiery wife whose husband is disappearing in front of her, metamorphosing into a new personality.

With Gerda’s help, Einar creates a new character, Lili. At first, she simply wears dresses but gradually Lili takes over Einar’s personality. She is the one Einar wants to be. Doctors think he is schizophrenic and try to have him locked up.

At times, the film feels too well-mannered and tasteful. Costume and production design are immaculate, in best heritage-movie fashion – but often a little fussy, too. For example, you can’t help but be distracted by the beret worn by Ben Whishaw (playing Henrik, Lili’s admirer) at one key moment. Alexandre Desplat’s music is elegiac but low key.

You could easily imagine The Danish Girl being made in a far rawer, more stylised and stridently melodramatic way by a film-maker such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He would have egged up scenes like the early one in which we see Einar hiding his penis between his legs, or the later one in which he is assaulted by homophobic thugs. Instead, Hooper aims for subtlety and understatement. Some of its visual gambits – notably the poetic shots of Lili’s scarf floating on the wind – verge on the trite.

This is a transgender story that is very careful not to startle or offend its audience. That is one reason it doesn’t have quite the emotional kick that might have been expected.