With director Tom Hooper at the helm and strong central performances from Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, you might think that The Danish Girl, an imagined version of the love story between Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, could do no wrong. But despite the accomplished turns from its stars, Hooper's film, based on the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff, is all style and little substance, which is a great shame given the remarkable story of the characters' real-life alter egos.
The film opens in Copenhagen in the 1920s. Artist Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is enjoying great success in his career while his wife Gerda (Vikander) struggles to sell her portraits. "Don't you wish you could paint like your husband?" a patronising male artist asks Gerda. They seem happy, though, until one day when Gerda asks her husband to don a ballet dress and shoes so that she can work on the portrait of their friend, ballet dancer Ulla (Amber Heard), who can't make a sitting. Reluctant at first, Einar agrees and to his surprise, finds a certain sense of lightness and liberation. When Ulla arrives, she refers to him as 'Lili' after the flowers she is carrying, and gradually, Lili takes her first steps into the world.
At first, it is just a game — to Gerda, at least — but when she suggests that Lili attend an upcoming artists' ball instead of Einar, who hates such events, she doesn't realise what it will mean for her marriage, her happiness and the zero-sum happiness of Einar and Lili. Einar realises that Lili has always been there ("when I dream," she says, "they're Lili's dreams") but as it is the 1920s, Einar cannot simply become Lili biologically and even dressing as Lili publicly bears a considerable risk. The doctors Einar and Gerda visit variously diagnose insanity and schizophrenia and threaten to lock Einar up, which causes the couple to flee to the anonymity of Paris. By happy coincidence, Einar's childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) is now an art dealer based in Paris and he becomes a source of great comfort and help for Gerda, Einar and Lili, as Einar seeks to become Lili in body as well as in mind and soul.
The Danish Girl is a beautiful film, with its exquisite costumes and gorgeous shots of Copenhagen and Paris. Even these feel a little paint-by-numbers, though: if you have never been to the Danish capital, this film might make you think it was nothing more than the admittedly picturesque Nyhavn. Redmayne and Vikander are wonderfully expressive — Schoenaerts also does a great job in an understated role — but if you strip away the textiles and the tears, all that remains is a trompe-l'œil. A lovely trompe-l'œil but a trompe-l'œil nonetheless.