As society changes, so do the norms that guide our behaviour. For example, we now allow gay marriage where once practicing homosexuals faced prison. There’s still a long way to go, and even with all the positive forward steps, the transgender agenda has remained side-lined. It’s refreshing then to find a big, glossy film taking on the issue, especially one so gorgeously shot and performed, and less refreshing that it seems more interested in achieving prestige drama status than exploring the issue in anything other than a cursory manner.

The Danish Girl follows Lili Elbe’s awakening as she comes to understand that an unfair quirk of fate has left her trapped in the body of a man, that of respected Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener. Eventual acceptance leads her to become the first person to undergo gender re-alignment surgery.

There’s a lot to like as director Tom Hooper (of The King’s Speech fame) pulls out all the stops to create an attractive and weepy drama. Every setting glimmers with the shine of quality production design, and the costumes bring to mind the roaring 1920’s parties of an Evelyn Waugh satire. In fact, everything feels remarkably British, right down to the clipped accents, which aids period credentials while somewhat detracting from the fact we’re in Copenhagen, not London.

Even then, it’s hard to care when the story is powered by such brilliant performances from Eddie Redmayne as Einar/Lili and Alicia Vikander as his wife, Gerda. Redmayne blinks and stutters through his transformation, convincing as the dapper artist and newly awakened Lili. The guilty glee on his face when he tries on women’s clothing, and the appealing uncertainty that comes from Lili’s first kiss with a man are all down to the power of his performance. Just as Felicity Jones did last year, Vikander takes the less showy part and matches him step for step. Her flirty and supportive wife, and later confused confidante, anchors the film, preventing overripe flourishes from dragging it down.

What they can’t do is add any more depth into a disappointingly shallow portrayal of transgenderism. Instead of trying to understand how Lili could have lived this lie, or what the impact might be on her and those close by, The Danish Girl opts to side-step, keeping the focus narrow and self-contained. Early scenes as she first dances with the idea of cross-dressing come about very easily, and there’s little in the way of disapproval for her actions, other than from histrionic doctors.

The film is too intent on trying to appear Oscar worthy to take any chances with the subject matter. Everything about the production screams awards-bait, from the pretty yet unspecific camerawork to lush costumes, portentous speeches and visual flourishes that see scarves lifted on the wind and bicycles racing handsomely downhill. Even Redmayne and Vikander are there to tug heartstrings and secure votes, and if they weren’t so good it would have been extremely irritating.

That’s the frustrating thing about The Danish Girl. It’s really a rather impressive period drama that talks the talk, and in the two leads, walks it as well. If only there could have been more desire to delve deeper. Then we might have had something really special.

Director: Tom Hooper
Writers: David Ebershoff (novel), Lucinda Coxon (screenplay)
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Eddie Redmayne, Amber Heard
Runtime: 120 min
Country: UK, Germany, USA

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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