Should the story of a fraught lesbian relationship be told by a pair of heterosexual women? Is a cis man the best person to portray a very real trans woman? These are things I won’t remotely be addressing as I review two more movies for Oscar season.
TL;DR Watch Carol, skip The Danish Girl.
Why’s that? Well, The Danish Girl just isn’t that good of a movie. The first sin is the director, Tom Hooper. He’s competent and makes movies that are lovely to look at. The problem is that he composes everything like a painting. The colors are warm and pretty, but the visuals hold the audience apart from the story. You’re not watching people, you’re clearly watching and artistically composed portrayal. Hooper’s films (see The Kings Speech and Les Misérables) always have a painterly quality to their framing, but in doing so bring as much attention to the frame as the picture within.
Eddie Redmayne does a performance that seems neither comfortable nor personal. Instead he transitions through affectations, striking poses for the camera more than letting us into Lili’s sense of self. Alicia Vikander, on the other hand, kills it. If there’s a single reason to watch this movie it is her. I’d actually recommend checking out Ex Machina to see something starring her that is both more entertaining and thought-provoking. Why’s she great? Because she manages to bring a fullness to a character that is the flattest version of Gerda that one could write. Gone goes the dynamic sexuality and out comes a supportive heterosexual wife. Gone goes the bohemian and out comes the party attendee. And yet… Alicia Vikander still makes her feel like the light of the film. When they look at each other she really does appear to be in love and struggling to come to some sort of understanding of who the person she’s in love with is. The things that were taken away from the character in the script are put back in by Vikander, and you can see an entire arc through her acting.
Then there’s the strange choice to base the film on the historical fiction novel The Danish Girl, rather than Lili Elbe’s autobiography, Man into Woman. Reading up on the historical couple, Lili and Gerda prove to be much more interesting than the people they ended up as in the novel. So in the end The Danish Girl doesn’t function all that well as a film or a biopic (pronounced bio-pick).
If you do want a mainstream film about non-hetero women then try Carol instead. Director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman use Therese’s (played by Rooney Mara) interest in photography to inspire the visuals, creating an inclusive, intimate, and at times nearly claustrophobic style that places you right next to the characters. Take that, Hooper!
And of course there’s Rooney Mara as Therese, and Cate Blanchett as the titular Carol. I’m convinced that the script must have been about thirty pages long, as most scenes are between these two, and most of their scenes just involve steeping the viewer in the looks between them. There are knowing looks, longing gazes, and silent exchanges that convey doubt or fear. As much as Alicia Vikander reaches out to Eddie Redmayne and gets very little acknowledgement in return in The Danish Girl, Carol is all about the quiet interplay between Cate and Rooney. What we end up with is an accessible (to some, though apparently not the voting Academy) movie that pulls the viewer in and allows the characters to share comfortable moments of silence on their winding journey together.
It’s hard not to compare these two films when they are both shortlisted for an Oscar and both revolve around a relationship between two women. It’s also hard not to judge The Danish Girl so harshly when one is so utterly bland and the other so enticing. Put The Danish Girl and any decent movie against each other and I’d recommend the latter. In this case, though, it’s The Danish Girl up against a really good movie, so there’s not much competition.