This post contains spoilers from The Danish Girl.
Director Tom Hooper’s latest film The Danish Girl is already stirring Oscar buzz, as well as a bit of controversy. Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili Elbe, the first transgender woman on record to undergo sex reassignment surgery, is certainly worthy of such consideration, as is Alicia Vikander’s as the character’s loving but conflicted wife. Such recognition could cause it to become one of the most widely viewed films about a transgender character ever released.
Though Lili and her wife Gerda Wegener were real people, the film draws from the novel about their lives, and artistic license allows for a very sympathetic portrayal of their journey. In one scene, Lili is beat up by two anonymous men in a park, but the beating is never referred to again in the film. A few doctors attempt to diagnosis her as mentally ill, but otherwise, all the flim’s characters support Lili to different extents. As a result, her transition actually seems uncontroversial, which may not be accurate historically but invites the audience to see it and understand it in such a light.
Lili’s transition often thus serves not as the main conflict, but as the context for her love story with Gerda — the only character actually referred to as a “Danish girl” in the film. Vikander shines in the role, almost stealing emphasis from Redmayne throughout. When the couple finally finds a doctor who they believe will be supportive of what Lili is experiencing, they explain to him her situation. Lili offers, “I believe I’m a woman inside,” but it’s Gerda’s follow-up, “And I believe it too,” that seems more poignant.
Like many other transgender coming out stories, The Danish Girl relies too heavily on the superficial details of Lili’s transition. Much as the premiere of Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show I Am Cait was criticized for its emphasis on fashion, Lili discovers her gender largely through female clothing, make-up, hair, and ultimately the changes to her body for which she is famous. Lili Elbe is a paragon of the transgender movement in large part because she kept thorough diaries about her experiences, making screenwriter Lucinda Coxon’s choice to be thoughtfully conservative with dialogue in favor of such imagery a missed opportunity. Redmayne is certainly compelling in these moments, but in contrast, Lili’s lines that speak to the mental aspect of her transition try to pack too much of a poignant punch and end up sounding trite or shallow as a result — e.g. “This is not my body, professor. Please take it away.”
The film will nevertheless likely be enlightening for those with limited understandings of what it means to be transgender. While some movies have one character that serves as the “What’s going on?” audience surrogate, The Danish Girl is nothing but audience surrogates. In 1924, few had any context to fully understand Einar Wegener’s transition to Lili Elbe — not even Lili herself. As Coxon said at a screening in Washington, D.C. on Monday, “Whenever people write about Lili, they have an agenda,” and The Danish Girl is no exception.
Transgender activists have criticized the film for casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender role, and though the invisibility of trans actors is a valid concern, Redmayne’s portrayal is a masterful twisting of gender that is worthy of praise. Remarkably, it is before the character transitions that he looks most like he is portraying the wrong gender, as if Einar is a breeches role, reminding of Glenn Close’s Albert Nobbs. Discovering her true self as she transitions, Lili gains confidence that Einar doesn’t have, and Redmayne’s performance similarly grows — and glows — in its sense of authenticity.
At Monday’s screening, Hooper defended casting Redmayne, praising his performance and noting the complicated casting snafus that preceded his signing onto the film. To compensate, he explained, “I went on a great journey to find transgender actors.” Some 20–30 trans actors were actually cast in the film, all playing supporting cisgender roles. Acknowledging that creating more opportunities in the industry for trans cast and crew is an important priority, Hooper promised, “I will do everything in my power to forward the cause.”
Two of the trans actors cast in the film, Rebecca Root and Jake Graf, were on hand to talk about their experience. “I’m not only playing cisgender, I’m playing German,” Root joked with her British accent. She pointed out that trans casting should not be so controversial because all actors play things they are not. As an example, she highlighted how Arthur Darvil (Doctor Who, Once on Broadway) played peg-legged Long John Silver in the Royal National Theatre’s recent production of Treasure Island, despite not being an amputee himself. She is optimistic that this film will open many more doors for trans actresses and actors like herself to play both cisgender and transgender characters.
Vikander thanked Root and Graf for talking so much about their own experiences on set, calling The Danish Girl an “educational experience” for her as an actress. “And you can never unlearn that,” Root countered, a sentiment that will likely be just as true for audiences nationwide.
The Danish Girl opens in limited release on Friday.