The Danish Girl (2015)

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Oh goodness me. Another film inspired by a true story. This one couldn’t be more different from The Revenant in style and sensibility, although I reckon it might also be playing to the Academy Award crowd. Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, a Danish artist in the 1920s who was the first publicly-known person to undergo gender reassignment when he became Lili Elbe. The Danish Girl focuses on him/her and Gerda, Einar’s wife and fellow artist. The story is…nice, palatable, inoffensive. Transgender packaged up neatly for a heterosexual world.

Does that sound a bit cynical? I quite enjoyed this film. It is beautiful, a muted palette of golds, blues and greys, gauzy curtains, silk stockings, satin slippers and red lips. It focuses on Lili’s struggle to be herself and Gerda’s steadfast love that sees her stand by her partner as she transitions. It is romantic, it is emotional and it brings to the fore the difficulties of asserting your identity when this challenges other people’s ideas of gender. If you want to see a film that gives you a gentle understanding of being transgender, that pleases the eye and upholds ideals of romantic and platonic love, then this is the film for you.

It seems a bit sanitised though. Einar goes quickly from quite liking the feel of a silk stocking on his leg to feeling he is a woman trapped in the wrong body and you don’t get a deep sense of what is in his head, what it must be like living the wrong gender. Redmayne is a handsome choice and he gives it a good crack but his version of femininity seems to be clichéd, a little superficial. There has been criticism that a transgender actor wasn’t cast but I can see that Redmayne is the box office draw. There were plans to cast Nicole Kidman, apparently, odd, and I think this would have made the gender transition seem less significant.

The script could have been better, given us an understanding that went past the clothes and makeup. The film could have been shorter, the music a bit less obtrusive. In many ways it is Gerda who shines, a good performance from Alicia Vikander. There is a moment in the film where Gerda is referred to as ‘the Danish girl’ and you realise that this is her story as much as Lili’s.

Where I lost faith with the film was afterward, reading the real story of Gerda and Einar. This film is based on a book with the same name by American author David Ebershoff, published around 15 years ago. The book fictionalises the story, changing facts and characteristics, I’m assuming for a more mainstream US palate. Although the film apparently reinstates some of the true story, it is where it differs that we see what fiction the mainstream market prefers to reality. If you’d prefer not to know, don’t read on.

Gerda was openly lesbian and a painter of erotic portraits. She was more comfortable with Lili, Einar’s female persona, and both lived quite openly in an accepting Parisian society. They divorced long before Einar’s surgery, which was when he was in his 40s, and Gerda did not know of Lili’s fate until a year later. Lili had four surgeries, the last to implant a uterus which her body ultimately rejected.

So, knowing this, you can see how coy the film is. Making Gerda heterosexual and Lili largely non-sexual allows us to accept a transgender person within the construct of a traditional relationship. It seems a minor challenge of identity and able to be weathered by romantic love. Am I the only one who feels short changed? The real tale sounds much more interesting and less clichéd. You could argue that at least this brings transgender issues in to the mainstream but I’m not convinced that this film does much to advance our understanding. I want to see the real Gerda, the real Lili, I don’t need to have my emotions manipulated by violins and floating scarves to understand pain and courage.

Bechdel test – pass (although this is an odd one as it only passes because a male actor playing a transgender woman has conversations with a female character)
3 stars

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