Lili’s journey of self-actualization takes place almost entirely in the Wegeners’ sparse apartment and at the parties she attends with Gerda, first posing as a visiting cousin of Einar’s to pass off the resemblance without drawing much attention. Gerda initially indulges Lili’s routine, believing her husband is playing a character. But when Lili draws the attention of another man (Ben Whishaw) at the party, the illusion is shattered. At that point, Lili stops pretending to shift between identities and decides to begin living as a woman permanently.
The Danish Girl is at its most fascinating when it explores the medical reaction to Lili’s realization—she’s diagnosed as schizophrenic and homosexual, and recommended for commitment to an asylum for electroshock therapy. Before she meets the pioneering doctor Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), who recommends she proceed with reassignment surgery, the bigotry and confusion she encounters is heartbreaking to witness.
But the personal side is unfortunately pedestrian. Redmayne is a capable physical actor who communicates every shudder and thrill Einar feels in the first act, but that’s all there is to his portrayal of Lili. It’s as if he spent so much time nailing the physical mannerisms that he forgot to create a character to go with it. It’s also possible that the film’s understandable but uncomplicated reverence for its subject is to blame. Lili winces, blanches, and gently tells Gerda over and over again that this is who she is now. Redmayne cries throughout the film—rather, it seems someone is crying in every scene—and the repetitive outpouring of emotion quickly becomes dull.
Most of the narrative is told from Gerda’s perspective. It’s perhaps facile that the film presents Lili’s realization as something happening to her, and it’s the main reason why Lili feels held at arm’s length for the entire film. Still, Vikander does lovely work as Gerda—she also does her fair share of crying and shuddering, but Gerda is largely presented as an accepting spouse who helps guide Lili into the next phase of her life, while letting go of their marriage (in real life, she was a more complicated person). Her gentle soul, in a way, represents the mainstreaming of this story—through her, the audience is being reminded of the importance of recognizing Lili unselfishly. It’s not just a tale of Lili coming out but also one that speaks to the power of acceptance.
All of this is communicated with the kind of hamfistedness Hooper seems to rely on more and more. As in Les Misérables, his camera hovers inches from his subjects’ faces, trying to catch every emotional tremor in case viewers didn’t. Unlike The King’s Speech, a more involving biopic for which he won the Oscar for Best Director, The Danish Girl is lacking in humor or energy, and so it has to fall back on the sheer worthiness of the story it’s telling. Unfortunately for viewers at least, virtue alone isn’t enough.