Who is the Girl? Is the question you may ask after seeing The Danish Girl. The assumption is that the film’s focus is on poster boy Eddie Redmayne, who plays Eina Wegener, as he discovers his identity as a woman and becomes Lili Elbe – (one of the first women to ever receive gender reassignment surgery). The movie follows the story of Lili Elbe and her previous wife Gerda Wegener as she discovers she wants to be a woman and begins her transition. The realisation is triggered when a dancer is late for her portrait session and Eina must wear woman’s stockings so his wife can finish the painting. Interestingly and perhaps contrary to expectation Redmayne stays male for at least 2/3 of the movie only truly transitioning in the last 40 minutes. In truth though the girl who really steals the film is Gerda Wegener played by Alicia Vikander, (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) who is simultaneously vulnerable and strong, affectionate and angry. Ultimately this movie tells Gerda’s story as much as Lili’s, allowing people to see both sides of a relationship where one partner is transitioning.
Redmayne’s performance is eerily reminiscent of his in The Theory of Everything (as Stephen Hawking) as he gradually adopts feminine characteristics the same way he built on Hawking’s slow deterioration. As Lili, Redmayne is beautiful with a nervous grace and an initial gangly quality. However, although Redmayne delivers an admirable and Oscar nominated performance his casting is still a point of contention. The casting of a cisgender male to play a transgender woman has caused the film to receive much criticism (cisgender means one who assigns to the gender they were born with). Ultimately, Redmayne’s performance can never truly be believable as the audience know the actor identifies as male in reality. The continued appearance of cis and straight actors in movies about those who are trans or homosexual raises questions worth further inspection. The Danish Girl may be a step forward, especially if we compare it to other famous films such as Tootsie or Mrs Doubtfire where cross-dressing is purely comical. As we begin to portray transition as an emotional experience for both the transitionee and their loved ones, we can say that a new dimension has been added to this kind of movie. However transgender stories authored by cisgender men are the predominant ones, and whilst it’s easy to argue ‘any publicity is good publicity’ we also have to ask ourselves whether it would be better for trans people to tell their own story.
In the past year this has been made more apparent by movies such as Dallas Buyers’ Club where Jared Leto (a cisgender male,) plays a trans woman, and Stonewall where the omitting of Trans people from the film undermines their importance in LGBT history.
Vikander’s performance does a great job of capturing the loss which those who are close to trans people may feel.
Equally it must be said that the casting of a transgender actor for the part could also be seen as difficult. Due to the plot of the film the actor would have to temporarily play a cis male and there is some argument that ‘back transitioning’ can be mentally painful for trans people and could cause strain on the actor. Redmayne himself was aware of the criticism he would receive for playing a trans character and met with many trans people to discuss their experiences and learn how to present them with fidelity, and has stated following the filming that he has begun to see his own gender identity in a new light. Ultimately, the telling of trans stories in a positive and loving light, showcasing the support loved ones can provide and also the determination of Lili Elbe is inspiring and a step forward – a man dressed as a woman is not a joke in this movie.
Alicia Vikander is ultimately a highlight. Her performance as Gerda Wegener is poignant. For many she is probably the point of empathy in the film as it is hard to understand Lili Elbe’s position if you have never felt the way she has. ‘Eina is dead’, Lili tells Gerda as she reminds Lili that they were once married. Vikander’s performance does a great job of capturing the loss which those who are close to trans people may feel – the possible casting of Gwyneth Paltrow or Charlize Theron seems out of the question by about the tenth minute of the feature. Vikander is charming, desirable and always, always likable. This performance when compared with her appearances in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Ex-Machina are a true testament to Vikander’s versatility, she is a rising star.
As always the look of Hooper’s movies is a massive draw. From the camerawork to the costume everything is perfectly composed. The 1920s setting works to the director’s benefit as he blossoms when working with period dramas, as is exemplified his previous films The King’s Speech and Les Miserables. And with music composed by his usual partner Alexandre Desplat it is a classic weeper in the making. But is Tom Hooper’s goal to make us cry? With this, his third massively successful period drama nominated for Oscars yet again he seems to be falling into a trap. Is he is only able to make amazingly beautiful, overwhelmingly emotional movies which require large amounts of adjectives and tissues? While being stuck in a rut of making films of this quality would be no bad thing, Hooper’s achievements to date can’t help but leave the viewer with a tantalising curiosity. What could an exploration of his directorial range provide?
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Hooper says his movie preaches that ‘inclusion comes from love and acceptance’. Many movies in recent years have tried to teach us this from Selma to Suffragette but do movies work as teaching devices? Of course it’s not impossible to walk away from a movie with a new perspective, but are people who aren’t already interested in trans stories/homosexual stories/black stories/women’s stories going to see movies about those stories? Until society is more inclusive and intersectional itself these movies will, despite success, lack any real ability to educate en-masse. If anything The Danish Girl’s efforts and the efforts of movies like it show the importance of educating children from a young age about acceptance and inequality. Only then will we be able to tell stories truthfully with clarity which reflect the experiences of the people our society is made up of. Overall though The Danish Girl’s dramatic examination of gender transition is, at the very least, an important step for cinema.
By Delilah Niel