Beginning in 1920s Copenhagen, The Danish Girl is a beautiful film about beautiful people moving through the art world in beautiful suits and frocks. One of these people, Einar Wegener, a landscape painter of some renown, trades his suit for a frock. He becomes a she, and she - Lili Elbe - is at the center of Tom Hooper's true-life, transgender romantic tragedy.
Hooper, who won an Oscar for another elegant historical piece featuring a tormented gent, The King's Speech, likes to frame his actors in dramatic spaces - artfully distressed walls, open balcony windows, the facades of stately city streets. The Danish Girl is no exception. It looks lovely in an art-directed way, and Eddie Redmayne, who won his Oscar earlier in the year for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, looks lovely, too. Especially as he goes all-in, transforming himself from the shy, mysterious Einar to the shy, mysterious Lili.
The latter's coming out is at a grand party. Accompanied by his wife, the artist Gerda Wegener (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander), Einar-as-Lili is aquiver in a beaded silk dress that leaves the neckline bare. Red lipstick, a chic bob, darting eyes, tremulous gestures - it's impossible not to look at Lili as she makes her entrance (posing as Einar's cousin from the countryside), liberated for the first time from the clothing, the identity that had long and wrongly been assigned. Born a male, Einar's very being is female.
That struggle - the knowledge that you are trapped in the wrong body - is what drives the title character of The Danish Girl, and there are moments when Redmayne and Hooper (using a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, adapted from the book by David Ebershoff) evoke that conflict in heartrending ways.
But there are other moments - many - when Redmayne's performance, like the one he gave in The Theory of Everything, comes off as a study in technique rather than something summoned from the soul.
The way Redmayne holds his head, the breathy intonations, the delicate-bird movements, the quiet shudder as the actor tries on Gerda's underclothes - I don't want to make light of The Danish Girl by citing one of the most comically horrific acting performances of our time, but look at Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending, the sci-fi debacle by siblings Andy and (transgendered) Lana Wachowski. As Balem Abrasax, an interplanetary overlord, Redmayne cocks his hand in much the same manner as he does in The Danish Girl. He wears makeup and regal garments that leave his (hairless) chest exposed, a picture of androgyny.
The Danish Girl follows Einar-turned-Lili's quest to live as a woman, first in Copenhagen, then Paris, and ultimately pursue a medical procedure for sexual reassignment. (It was one of the first such operations to be documented, in a German clinic, under the care of a doctor played in the film by Sebastian Koch, of Bridge of Spies and Homeland.)
The film also tracks the increasingly tricky relationship between the married couple: Gerda is at once a guide, encouraging her spouse as he enters this heretofore foreign world. But Gerda is also a victim of the gender switch: Lili is courted by a besotted admirer (Ben Whishaw). What's a good wife to do?
And Gerda's professional career only takes off when she begins to paint her new model, Lili. The Art Deco portraits are a hit; Gerda, in a sense, is exploiting her soul mate.
Throughout all this, Vikander - seen earlier this year as the AI muse of Ex Machina - brings Gerda to life with humor and heartbreak, intelligence and a knowing sexuality. It is the Swedish girl, in fact, who strikes the deepest chords in The Danish Girl.
Directed by Tom Hooper. With Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 2 hours.
Parent's guide: R (nudity, sex, adult themes).