The Danish Girl is easily director Tom Hooper’s most interesting movie, though that doesn’t say very much. Dramatizing the world’s first known gender reassignment surgery, Hooper explores the story from an intimate setting, concerning himself largely with the marital plight of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) rather than the social or political aspects of Einar/Lili’s decision in 19th century Amsterdam. The result is a tender treatment of a delicate subject but with a shallow focus.

Hooper’s main problem is that he isn’t sure whose story is the compelling one—the title refers to Einar/Lili in spirit and Gerda in dialogue. While Einar’s decision to transition emotionally, and then physically, into Lili is a brave one, Gerda’s ability to stand by Einar/Lili through thick and thin, time and trial, is an act of strength and selflessness, and Hooper plays close attention to this attribute.

This might be due to Gerda’s sexual attraction to Lili, an aspect that isn’t just left unexplored but one that is altogether sanitized from the finished product. What Hooper relies on is Gerda’s devotion to Einar. When Einar decides to effectively commit suicide by having himself castrated—at this point, Lili refers to Einar as “dead”—Gerda remains close both physically and emotionally, but not without expressing displeasure that the man she married is no more, but that’s about it. At this point—the last 20 minutes really—Lili’s story overtakes the narrative, and Gerda’s wants, desires, and feelings are left off the table. She is clearly proud of her partner but deeply wounded.

The cinematography from Danny Cohen—Hooper’s go-to collaborator—and a score supplied from Alexandre Desplat dazzle, but they look to distract from The Danish Girl’s otherwise lackluster story.

However, despite any shortcomings that The Danish Girl may have, it is a much better movie than one it threatens to slip into now and then. There are no grand speeches, no hand wringing, and no debate over the moral implications of Einar/Lili’s decision, just the humane act of watching and understanding.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Danish Girl (2015)
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Screenplay by: Lucinda Coxon
Based on the novel by: David Ebershoff
Produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Anne Harrison, Tom Hooper, Gail Mutrux
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sebastian Koch
Focus Features, Rate R, Running time 127 minutes, Opens December 25, 2015