THE DANISH GIRL – Alexandre Desplat
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Gender identity issues have been a major social topic in 2015, encompassing everything from Caitlin Jenner to the acclaimed TV series Transparent, so it is perhaps unsurprising that a film like The Danish Girl should be released this year. Directed by Oscar-winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), it looks at the life of Einar Wegener, a young Danish man living in Copenhagen in the 1920s, who became the first ever recipient of male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. Lead actor Eddie Redmayne is heavily tipped for a second consecutive Academy Award for his performance as Einar and his alter ego, Lili, and he is ably supported by Alicia Vikander as his wife, Gerda. Also receiving a great deal of critical acclaim has been the score, written by French composer Alexandre Desplat, who has already received Golden Globe and Satellite Award nominations for his work. This is the fifth and final Desplat score of 2015, whose output in general has been disappointing compared to his usual stellar standards: Suffragette came and went without much fanfare, Everything Will Be Fine was barely released in the United States, and neither Il Racconto dei Racconti nor Une Histoire de Fou have been released outside their native countries at all.
If you have heard any of Alexandre Desplat’s period drama scores over the last decade or so – and there are plenty of them to choose from – then you will have a decent idea of what The Danish Girl sounds like. Light, classical orchestrations, with heavy emphasis on strings, pianos, and woodwinds; elegant, pretty thematic constructs; rhythmic ideas that follow traditional dance like timings; and an incredibly precise and detailed recording which picks out every triangle ting, every harp glissando, and every inflection from every instrument. It’s utterly lovely, from start to finish, and from a musical and compositional standpoint cannot be faulted in any way – Desplat remains, for me, one of the most consistently interesting composers working today in terms of how he uses an orchestra. But with this score something odd happened: more than any other Alexandre Desplat score of this type in recent memory, I found myself becoming emotionally disinvested in it as it progressed.
Einar Wegener’s story is all about transformation – of her life, her gender, her relationships, her identity – as she becomes Lili and leaves her old, masculine self behind and embraces the femininity and womanhood she always had inside. Unfortunately, Desplat’s score doesn’t really seem to speak to this at all; more than any other recent Desplat score, this feels like ‘surface music’, that adds a pretty sheen to the movie, and sounds perfectly period-appropriate, but doesn’t really develop anything or go anywhere. It starts off pretty and classical, continues to be pretty and classical throughout the score, occasionally hints at something darker and more serious, but ends just as pretty and classical as it began. There’s no real sense of a journey, of a transformation, and that is disappointing to me, especially for a composer with Desplat’s insight, intellect, and understanding of storytelling, and in the context of this film.
This aspect aside, and as I said, the music is still undeniably appealing. The opening piece, “The Danish Girl,” and subsequent cues like the extended “Lili’s Dream,” “Watching Ulla,” “Gerda,” “To Dresden,” and “Gerda in the Rain,” feature the gorgeous string melodies, the gentle woodwinds, the rolling harps, the graceful piano lines, and the familiar metallic percussion accents that have typified Desplat’s work on everything from Girl With a Pearl Earring to The Painted Veil and The King’s Speech, going all the way back to The Luzhin Defence in 2000. “Gerda,” especially, has a soft-focus, dreamlike feeling to it, while other cues like “Watching,” “Radiation,” and “Lost Blood,” have more than a touch of melancholy, and even a hint of desperation, especially in the latter track. The pacing is slow, and the overall mood is one of calmness and restraint, but anyone with an appreciation for any of the scores I mentioned will undoubtedly find the music engaging on a purely aesthetic level.
One or two cues, like “Einar Returns Home,” “Aggression,” and “Schizophrenia,” raise the tempo and dramatic thrust of the story somewhat with urgent string rhythms and a more forceful, belligerent style, but these pieces are few and far between, and do little to break the overarching mood. Elsewhere, “Make Up & Costume” and “Fonnesbech” have a slightly mischievous sense of playfulness about them, with hooting clarinets dancing above nimble rhythms and plucked strings, while “The Mirror” introduces an almost subliminal female vocal effect to the score, almost as if, upon seeing himself dressed as a woman for the first time, Einar’s inner female starts to emerge.
However, the thematic ideas are not immediate standouts. There does seem to be at least three different themes, representing Einar, his alter ego Lili, and his relationship with his wife Gerda, but they are all so similar in tone and texture that it is easy to confuse them, and Desplat often presents them contrapuntally or sequentially, allowing them to blend together. In fact, this may actually be Desplat’s intellectual musical answer to the film’s dramatic impetus, insinuating that Einar and Lili are two sides of the same coin, and as such have two themes that are sonically and harmonically linked, but just different enough from a melodic point of view. Despite this, this overall lack of thematic indistinctiveness is what contributes to my own lack of true emotional connection with the score; it all just ends up sounding samey. Even the last cue, “Lili’s Death,” which one would usually expect to provide some sort of significant emotional catharsis, feels like just another cue, indistinguishable from the rest of the score. It’s all lovely, but very repetitive.
If recent history and precedent is anything to go by, The Danish Girl will likely give Alexandre Desplat his ninth Academy Award nomination; it’s a film which screams ‘Oscar-bait’, and Academy voters tend to adore this type of neo-classical writing, as evidenced by Desplat’s own awards history, as well as recent nominations for similar-sounding scores by composers like Jóhann Jóhannsson and Dario Marianelli. Personally, however, I found this score frustrating – aesthetically, I enjoyed it, as I enjoy nearly all Desplat scores, but there was just something lacking in the final execution that stopped me from appreciating it on the same level as his earlier scores. Perhaps this is something of a watershed for me – have I heard Desplat write this type of score so many times before, that it’s now becoming a little predictable?
Buy the Danish Girl soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The Danish Girl (2:10)
- Lily’s Dream (5:23)
- Watching Ulla (2:07)
- Gerda (1:59)
- Make-up & Costume (3:16)
- Watching (3:28)
- The Mirror (3:56)
- Einar Returns Home (1:37)
- To Dresden (2:22)
- Aggression (3:36)
- Radiation (2:22)
- Gerda in the Rain (4:01)
- Fonnesbech (1:43)
- Schizophrenia (2:02)
- One Step At A Time (3:57)
- Lost Blood (2:16)
- Lily’s Death (4:44)
- Roses of Picardy (written by Frederick E. Weatherly and Haydn Wood, performed by Certains l’Aiment Chaud) (4:38)
- Danish Waltz 1 (1:49) [BONUS CUE]
- Danish Waltz 2 (1:40) [BONUS CUE]
Running Time: 59 minutes 06 seconds
Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Jean-Pascal Beintus, Nicolas Charron and Sylvain Morizet. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Rael Jones. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.