In The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne plays Lili Elbe with only one facial expression

The Danish Girl hasn't a clue about its own protagonist. Plus: Joy and Sisters reviewed.

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If excitement could be converted into quality, Star Wars: the Force Awakens (12A) would be so incredible that no one would ever bother making another film again. Frankly, I can’t see it. I’m not saying the appeal is lost on me. I mean I literally cannot see it: the movie won’t be screened for critics until after this issue has gone to press. (Using the power of the Force, however, a review will have appeared magically on the NS website before you read this.)

But who needs lightsabers when you can have mops? David O Russell’s new film, Joy (12A), is a biopic of Joy Mangano, the single mother who in the 1990s invented the self-wringing, machine-washable Miracle Mop. Jennifer Lawrence is indefatigable in the lead role. Whole scenes require her to keep mum amid a hubbub or to silence dissenters with a stare. Hunger Games fans may be surprised to see her prevail during one confrontation simply by removing a speck of dust from her leg and staring out of the window. No archery required.

Russell’s last film, American Hustle, was a romantic comedy that resembled a gangster movie. He’s playing peekaboo with genres again in Joy, taking melodrama and dolling it up as a comic thriller. Scenes repeatedly seem to be pointing towards violence but personality wins the day.

As the movie begins, Joy is steeped in domestic chaos, sharing a house with her ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez), and her warring, divorced parents (Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen). Enter Dad’s new catch, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), an Italian widow whose fortune provides the chance for Joy to turn a business idea into a reality – and to clean up.

When it comes to colour and ­compassion, Russell wipes the floor with his contemporaries. Get a bunch of boisterous chatterboxes in a room and Russell will make the scene sing. Then he’ll throw in some more – a jolly Haitian handyman, or a presenter on the QVC shopping channel who talks about his “process” as though he’s preparing to play Vanya, or a powerful buyer (Bradley Cooper) auditioning for the role of Joy’s love interest. But she doesn’t need one: she’s married to the mop.

There is huge relish in the depiction of the Mangano clan as an organism that never stops writhing and wriggling. They’re like the Miracle Mop itself, which has the appearance of hundreds of individual loops of cotton, when in fact it’s one continuous, connected strand. Russell’s take on domestic life has never been straightforward (his 1994 debut, Spanking the Monkey, was a brisk tale of mother-son incest) and the new film is yet another ambivalent family portrait. When Joy suffers a setback, her father delivers an insult disguised as an apology: he is truly sorry, he says, for ever making her believe she could amount to anything. It’s parenting at its most pernicious.

Her soothing grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), tells her: “I’m going to live to see you become the successful matriarch you were born to be.” She’s not the only character who talks like she’s in a TV movie. But the air of unreality is deliberate. Ghosts commingle with the living: the film is narrated from beyond the grave, while spirits drift through a TV soap opera.

When Joy performs the demonstration that clinches her a deal with QVC, it is in a spotless white kitchen that suggests a ­Hollywood idea of the afterlife. Indeed, every set and surface appears to have been cleaned with a Miracle Mop. But the picture has grit not immediately visible to the naked eye. For all the family-oriented bustle and vitality, most of Joy’s success is down to her alone. Each time someone else in­terferes, it goes wrong. Though the film is a celebration of a powerful and tenacious woman, it could also be read as a manifesto for control freaks.

Another real-life struggle lies behind The Danish Girl (15). This cautious prestige piece has none of the boldness in its film-making choices that would have suited the artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), who became known as Lili Elbe before undergoing gender reassignment surgery in 1931.

It is through the nurturing of Einar’s wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), that Lili is able to flourish. Vikander is adept at showing how Gerda recalibrates her emotional settings to meet the changes in her husband. But then the film is at pains to understand her. About its protagonist, it hasn’t the foggiest. Lili is an unknowable curiosity, with Redmayne’s performance all mannerism and no inner life. His one facial expression (gaze lowered, lashes fluttering, face half-turned away in a simpering smile) is like a phrase that becomes ever more banal with each repetition.

The visual choices of the director, Tom Hooper, are as mystifying as ever. This is The Danish Girl but he should be known as the Dutch Guy, given his fondness for “Dutch angles”, in which the camera is slightly tilted. (A whole three minutes pass before the first one here.) Born film-makers express their thematic ideas in visual terms but Hooper doesn’t have that facility.

An unsubtle score by Alexandre Desplat mounts an all-out assault on our tear ducts, while Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay leaves no image unflagged. When a scarf is snatched by the wind, it would make little appreciable difference if Gerda’s line – “Leave it, let her fly” – were replaced by, “Leave it, it’s symbolic.”

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler can raise the roof on television, either separately in their sitcoms (30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, respectively) or together, hosting the Golden Globes, where their gags about industry sexism have drawn gasps, as well as blood. Neither performer has quite generated the same sparks in cinema. After its weak opening 20 minutes, however, Sisters (15) reverses that pattern.

Poehler plays a highly strung nurse who skipped adolescence, while Fey is her sibling, a feckless hairdresser who had enough teenage wildness for both of them. When they throw a hedonistic party in their childhood home on the day before it’s sold by their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest), their lives instantly pick up – and so does the movie.

The cast includes reliable character comics such as Maya Rudolph and John Leguizamo alongside hot-shot newcomers such as Greta Lee as a goading manicurist, and Emily Tarver as a shop assistant who radiates toxic indifference. Forget about the last-minute life lessons and the equation of mortgages with maturity, and savour the gags, which range from the coarse (Fey’s advice on the wearing of thongs: “You’ve got to build up a callus”) to the affectionately daft (bursting in on the middle-aged shindig, Brolin barks: “Everyone get out of here before I call your kids!”). Much like Joy, it’s a joy.

“Joy” and “The Danish Girl” both open in cinemas on 1 January. “Sisters” is out now on general release

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special