Movie review: "The Danish Girl" plays too safe with Oscar bait

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

While it's certainly the most wonderful time of year to be a film critic, a certain sense of cynicism creeps into the end-of-year "Awards Season." Some movies seem constructed from the ground up as Oscar bait, and this year's biggest winner may be "The Danish Girl."

From its subject matter to its casting to its director, this feels like a film aiming to sweep up as many accolades as it can. The most surprising thing is how safe it plays things.

Eddie Redmayne, an Oscar-winner for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," plays Danish painter Einar Wegener. In the 1920s in Copenhagen, he lives with wife and fellow artist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander).

The Wegeners are as loving and supportive a couple as you'll ever find. One day, Gerda asks Einar to put on some stockings and work as a stand-in for a female model. This moment stirs something deep in Einar.

The couple playfully decides that Einar should attend a social function dressed as a woman. Soon Einar begins living more of his life as a woman named Lili Elbe. Gerda is supportive, and Lili becomes a muse in her work, even as Einar's male-to-female transition adds expected complexities to their marriage.

The script for "The Danish Girl" by Lucinda Coxon has been floating around for years, but its timing in a year when mainstream society is finally getting educated to and gaining acceptance of transgender issues is undeniable.

After several directors have been attached to the project, it finally was brought to completion by Tom Hooper. The director of "The King's Speech" and the recent "Les Miserables" adaptation added to the Oscar pedigree, but he also turns out a beautifully shot film that seems devoid of the needed pulse. It's a period piece meeting a very modern social commentary, but the emphasis seems to be on the former to a fault.

Redmayne steps into a challenging role as he works to show the underpinnings of Einar's discovery of true self as Lili. He's best in moments of restraint. The larger moments strain toward melodrama.

Much as in "The King's Speech," his female co-star is the real breakout. Newcomer Vikander has already turned in an amazing performance this year in "Ex Machina." She's the only one who takes real chances here. Best Actress would be the best accolade for this movie to earn.

The importance of the subject matter makes the overall misfiring more troublesome, but Oscar completists should see for themselves.

"The Danish Girl"

Opens Christmas Day

2 1/2 stars out of 4