May the Film Internet forgive me, but I honestly, reliably enjoy the visuals in director Tom Hooper's movies. I like the way he and his regular cinematographer, Danny Cohen, kept shunting the actors into weird corners of the frame in The King's Speech to suggest the main character's sense of discomfort in the world; I like their use of shallow-focus close-ups all throughout Les Misérables as a way of reducing the impersonally epic scale of a Broadway megamusical down to a series of moments experienced by individual characters.

I even like a lot of the images in The Danish Girl, Hooper's latest film and believe it or not, his most Oscarbaity yet. There's an early scene in which Danish painter Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), who has not yet had the realisation that he's* a woman born into a man's body, is framed in a tiny corner of frames full of gauzy dress material, and I elect to regard this as a nifty, on-point bit of foreshadowing in addition to being lovely to look at. Not much latter, there's a scene where Einar's wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander) stands by a door in a hallway, and it's a very King's Speech-ey image whose oddball framing gives a shot of adrenal tension. So I apologise, but I will continue to regard Hooper as interesting & not the pustulant canker on the art of cinema that he's typically written off as being.

Interesting or not, Hooper is exactly the wrong director for this material. His style is one of extreme exteriority, and The Danish Girl - being a biopic of Lili Elbe, one of the first trans women to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, and mostly about the effect this had on her marriage - is inherently driven by an interior conflict. It takes a great deal of sensitivity and minutely sophisticated style to tease that kind of thing out; doubly so for the most prominent film about a transgender character in a year that found transgender issues launching into the forefront of the cultural dialogue in the United States. What we get in The Danish Girl are shots of Redmayne looking down at his legs in woman's stockings with an expression of stunned arousal, while Alexandre Desplat's terrible, terrible music bleats its way through the string section (I have to say that while I was prepared to be annoyed by many things in The Danish Girl, I was especially not prepared for one of those things to be the worst score Desplat has ever composed).

In point of sober fact, the film is technically a literary adaptation, not a biopic: it's based on David Ebershoff's 2000 novel based on the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, meaning we're at two removes of fiction. And that, anyway, explains in part how it could be that the film elects to make both characters so very much less interesting than their real-life counterparts - Wegener especially, who had a pretty complex interior life and sexual identity herself, and who absolutely deserved more than to be cast as the Long-Suffering Wife in the latest variation on the stock Pollock/A Beautiful Mind framework for telling rigidly formalised stories about real people.

Though in fact, The Danish Girl tweaks that formula in a manner that somehow makes it even less interesting. Gerda is, beyond question, considered only in terms of how she relates to Einar/Lili: at first as a sympathetic co-conspirator helping her husband express a new set of feelings right under the noses of polite society, as she encourages him to go out into the world as Lili; later as an advocate helping to track down sympathetic doctors and forcing the world around them to be accepting, as Lili realises that Einar, if he ever existed, is now gone; last a tearful martyr who understands that her relationship with Lili cannot be like her relationship to Einar, and the person she loved is no longer available to her. The early feints at depicting Gerda's busy, burgeoning career as a painter quickly retrenches to window dressing; the late introduction of Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Einar and current art dealer, to be Gerda's emotional support and new lover at least gives Vikander some kind of thing to do that isn't looking wistfully at Redmayne, but it's pretty thin stuff that the film openly treats as a distraction to the A-plot.

What's weird about this is that, for all that Gerda is cast almost exclusively in a reactive role, stripped of all but the semblance of an independent identity behind "person who was married to Lili Elbe before Elbe transitioned", she's also the protagonist of The Danish Girl. Hooper, recall, can't quite figure out a way to let us into Lili's head, and Lucinda Coxon's screenplay (one of several versions she wrote over the course of a decade of development hell; intriguingly, it is apparently one of the older drafts that was adopted as the shooting script) doesn't really demand that we do much with Lili beside sympathise with her - cementing its status as a My First Trans Story for bourgeois liberal art house patrons, The Danish Girl is much too skittish to actually try to inhabit Lili's sense of self - and the viewer's perspective is uniformly lined up with Gerda as a response. This becomes, somewhat by default and probably not on purpose, less about the conflict within Lili and primarily about the conflict between Gerda and her spouse. Though "conflict" is an entirely too strong word for it. Ambivalence, let us say.

I don't suppose there's much of anything wrong with that approach per se, though it's plainly the case that Hooper and company were hoping to make a more dramatic social statement than this ends up being. Drama, anyway, is in greatly short supply: this is a heavily episodic film that doesn't really build up to its climax so much as it finally stumbles into the point in history where Elbe died of an unsuccessful surgery, having run out of repetitive scenes of Redmayne playing exactly one kind of emotion, and Vikander getting to play a whopping two. As for what point in history that is, damned if I can tell: the film's chronology at the very least doesn't seem to map onto reality, nor does it do a sufficient job of demonstrating the passage of time within itself. This is emphatically inert storytelling, with Hooper leading a faultlessly posh production crew (costumes by Paco Delgado, production designed by Eve Stewart) into making a movie that is thoroughly fixed up with the immaculately tasteful shabbiness common to the director's work, and far too primly respectful to actually make demands of the audience or the story. It is a very fucking nice movie, neurotically so, and that makes it awfully damn boring.

Every now and then, the film comes along with a unexpectedly interesting scene. There are the moments when Vikander (who is, by an incredibly lopsided margin, the most effective performer in the movie) pulls out her character's unanticipated erotic response to seeing Einar transform into Lili; there is a scene in which Lili pantomimes with a nude dancer in a peep show, the dancer replacing her own reflection. An obvious image, but well-executed and the only moment in the film's latter half where the visuals are doing anything of even the smallest note. But every time one of these scenes drifts along, something gets in the way: the museum-quality dresses, the limited palette of subdued colors, the damnably easygoing, saccharine score. The Danish Girl is hellbent on being as inoffensive as possible, and it succeeds; but aye me, at such a cost!