I’d been looking forward to seeing The Danish Girl since I first heard about it over a year ago. I went in with very high expectations and, fortunately, I was not disappointed. The film is beautiful – both in content and visually. The sets and costumes are gorgeous. The cinematography was so lovely, you could frame still shots from the film and hang them on your wall. The actors, skilled and dedicated professionals, did a great job. In fact, as the credits rolled, I thought to myself “Wow, that movie was outstanding!” I still believe The Danish Girl is a very good and moving film, but after thinking about it for a couple days, I think its terrific for reasons different than I originally thought.
First, the particulars and a brief plot summary, as spoiler-free as the trailers…
The Danish Girl is a highly fictionalized story about Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, a pair of artists famous in the 1920s. At the start of the film, Lili, played by Eddie Redmayne, is known as Einar Wegener; Einar is a man living in the gender assigned to him at birth. He is married to Gerda, portrayed by Alicia Vikander, and the couple is very much in love. Through the course of the film, Einar realizes, struggles with, and then accepts the fact that he is transgender. Though his body is outwardly male, in his heart and mind, he knows his true gender is – and has always been – female. With the unwavering love and support of Gerda, Einar begins living as a female and going by the name Lili Elbe. In due course, Lili becomes one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Directed by Tom Hooper, who previously directed Oscar-winning films including Les Misérables and The King’s Speech, The Danish Girl was based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name. It was adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon. The film was put out in limited release on November 27, 2015 and more widely distributed on Christmas Day. Its run time is 2 hours.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, back to me. Immediately after the film, my head was swimming with thoughts of Eddie Redmayne. How, like in his Oscar-winning performance in The Theory of Everything, he completely transformed his physicality for the role of Lili. He changed so many things we don’t consciously notice in ourselves that make us present as male or female. There were broad changes in his walk and his voice, subtle nuances in the ways he’d tilt his head or hold his fingers or lower his gaze. Redmayne literally spent over 2 years preparing for this performance; he read books such as Lili Elbe’s posthumous biography, 1933’s Man Into Woman, and met with transgender women. These included noted director, screenwriter and filmmaker, Lana Wachowksi (the Matrix films, V for Vendetta, Jupiter Ascending) and April Ashley, MBE – the grande dame of British transsexualism – who was a celebrated Vogue model in the 1960s until someone who knew her before her gender-confirmation surgery sold her story to the press. Redmayne has stated in interviews that he was trying to learn as much as he could so he could represent this community in a respectful and authentic way. The result was impressive.
As with any film in which straight, white movie stars are cast to portray people of color or of another marginalized group, The Danish Girl received some criticism about Redmayne’s casting. Were there no trans actors available, so this cisgender Oscar-winner won the part? I have mixed feelings about this complaint. I agree that there is a major casting problem in Hollywood that must be addressed. Yet, I also feel like if the role were played by a transgender actor who was not famous – which would be all of them with the possible exceptions of Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner – the film would not be the conversation-starter that it is. It wouldn’t have been picked up by Working Title Films, one of the world’s leading film production companies which, incidentally, also made Redmayne’s previous 2 Oscar-winning films – Les Miserables and The Theory of Everything. It would have been another awesome indie film that most people wouldn’t hear about or see and would definitely not have been a catalyst for a nation-wide discourse on transgenderism. I don’t know which side of the scale weighs heavier. Does the value of such a wider audience hearing about transsexuals outweigh the perpetuation of Hollywood’s exclusionary hiring practices? I honestly don’t know.
This is not the only criticism of the film. I was surprised to discover that there’s a small community of people who absolutely despise Eddie Redmayne – and for precisely the reasons that most people (and certainly the Academy) think he’s awesome. I’ve read a couple articles by transgender women who think the film is terrible because Redmayne’s focus was so much on external things like Lili’s posture or how she dressed instead of showing more of her internal thoughts or her goals for when her surgeries were done. My response to this complaint is ‘haters gonna hate.’ This film wasn’t about the life and times of Lili Elbe. It dealt exclusively with the period when she was transitioning. It seems appropriate to me, then, that she would be focusing on external things. That’s what the transition does: it makes your outer self match your inner self.
And I disagree that we didn’t get a sense of Lili’s feelings. Her challenges were heartbreaking. For example, not only did Lili have the misfortune of being born into the wrong body, she had no words for it. No one she could point to and say, “I’m like her. I’m not the only one.” Doctors thought she was crazy and wanted to institutionalize her. Redmayne portrayed these struggles well.
I’m a cisgender woman. I can’t say with any degree of certainty that he captured the essence of the transgender struggle. He did, however, convey the feeling of wanting something more than anything else in the world; wanting it so much that nothing in your world felt right; wanting it even though people didn’t understand or support you; wanting it and fearing you might never, ever get it. He demonstrated that Lili’s transition was of such urgent importance to her – was such a physical and psychological necessity – that she was even willing to risk losing the person she loved most: Gerda.
So, all this Redmayne stuff was my initial focus and response to the film. And truly, Redmayne was great. He’ll definitely be nominated for another Best Actor Oscar. He’ll probably even win. But upon reflection, that’s not what made this movie so great for me. Despite all indicators pointing to this story being all about Lili, in reality, it was Gerda’s film. Going over the film in my head, I realized that I didn’t cry my face off for an hour because of Lili’s difficulties in becoming her authentic self. I cried my face off because of the selfless purity of Gerda’s love. I don’t want to spoil anything with details, but Gerda had the kind of love for Einar, and then for Lili, that caused her to help the person she loved most – the person she had intended to spend the rest of her life with – to cease to exist.
The kind of love in which a person will put their partner’s needs above their own even when the cost is immense is not a love you see everyday. It is both painful and beautiful. Alicia Vikander’s channeling of this love, as well as all of Gerda’s other concerns and interests, was flawless. It would be an injustice if she does not get an Oscar for this role. She was great in Ex Machina, but she was transcendent in The Danish Girl. Even if you’re indifferent about transgenderism and are a card-carrying member of the Redmayne Unappreciation Brigade, go see this movie so you can see Alicia Vikander shine.
5 out of 5 tubes of lipstick