In this era of Caitlyn Jenner and loads of respectful awards attention paid to the Amazon series Transparent, it’s tempting to look at the tepid, staid The Danish Girl as sadly behind the times in its depiction of an individual coming to terms with their true self. Then Ricky Gervais returns to the Golden Globes hosting gig with a slew of jokes that utilize cheap, hateful mockery of transgendered individuals as punchlines, the least offensive of which is the dig at Jenner which has stirred the most ire. (The casual derision towards Jeffrey Tambor’s work in Transparent, with Gervais, for example, weighing the quality of the acting by saying “I don’t know if that’s because he is such a great actor or because he reminds me of my Nan,” is the more egregious and telling sin.) Maybe there’s still a place for the vanilla social heroics of Tom Hooper’s film.
In the film, Eddie Redmayne is introduced as Einer Wegener, a Danish landscape painter of some renown, living in Copenhagen in the nineteen-twenties. Initially, it seems the main challenge he endures involves determining how to best support his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), in her flagging art career. In short, though, it becomes clear that Einer has a more profound dilemma. At a point that such an admission led to cruel institutionalization, at best, Einer is a woman deep down, identifying as Lili, a persona that has been within him for years. With a care that verges on trepidation, Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (adapting a novel by David Ebershoff) track through Lili’s journey, including her pursuit of gender reassignment surgery, a completely revolutionary procedure at the time.
The film is upstanding and empathetic, though its consideration of Lili’s situation is crafted so generically that it could be any number of social prejudices and disinclinations that beset the lead character. In that, The Danish Girl recalls last year’s most rote prestige picture, The Imitation Game. It’s not nearly as execrable in its patent phoniness, which is admittedly praise about as faint as the film’s pulse. Only Vikander transcends the lulling blandness of it all, largely by injecting her character with sparks of flinty personality. She offers a gentle, welcome counter-argument to the film’s prevailing thesis that being respectful in depiction of a sensitive topic mandates a withdrawal from the bold.
There’s boldness to be found in Joy, the latest from director David O. Russell. A coherent vision is what’s lacking. In telling the story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence, skillful enough in the role to justify her anointed place as Russell’s muse), the inventor of the Miracle Mop and a bevy of other products, Russell’s film careens all over the place. Sometimes its a relatively straightforward rendering of a bizarre version of the American Dream realized, and sometimes it’s set asunder by a scampish deconstruction of narrative. Depending on the moment, the film can come across as a soft satire, a conventional female empowerment drama, or a new spin on the appealing Scorsese aping of Russell’s American Hustle, the Goodfellas gangster culture repurposed into the anxious capitalism of the earliest days of QVC. The marauding romp across different approaches wouldn’t be problematic if it came across as purposeful, the unsettled nature of the film striving for more intricate meaning. Instead, it feels like the whole endeavor simply got away from Russell, as if he didn’t really know what he wanted to make, so he tried to make it everything.