The more you think about the movie Stonewall from last year, the better you’ll feel when you see a comparatively more dignified film for the trans community. I’ve been told that this film isn’t as heavy or meaningful as the recently Oscar-snubbed Tangerine, which I’ve sadly not yet seen, but I wasn’t too displeased with what this film had to bring – at least in terms of shots, costumes, and sets.
The Danish Girl is the more-or-less (but apparently mostly “less”) true tale of Einar Wegener: a man who would eventually come to be a woman, named Lili. It is brought to the big screen by Tom Hooper of Les Misérables, a film that made so many people cry that it puzzles me to this day why I didn’t.
We’re in 1920’s Copenhagen and Eddie Redmayne, redeeming himself after Jupiter Ascending, plays Einar. His wife Gerda, played by Sweden’s own Alicia Vikander, asks him to help her with her latest painting, by standing in for the female model she was originally depicting when said model fails to show up. Einar complies, and finding himself curiously at home in the women’s garments he’s made to wear, he makes it an everyday habit to wear them and starts referring to himself as “Lili Elbe”. Gerda humors what she thinks is just a quirky fantasy her husband has, but his love of clothes not prescribed for his gender goes deeper than that.
Einar reveals that he, or “she” rather, is starting to truly become this Lili person, pretty much no longer wanting to be a man. Gerda finds it difficult to remain supportive, which isn’t helped by a night where Lili lets herself get kissed by a flirty young man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw). Gerda even starts to feel things for an arts dealer named Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), in spite of wanting to keep helping “her husband”, a person she feels Einar/Lili no longer is, and also in spite of Gerda’s paintings of Lili become more hot-selling than any of her earlier works. It is not a simple path and I’m sure most of you know that it ultimately ends with what is allegedly one of the first documented cases of sexual realignment surgery in history (so says the film, at least) and how it goes.
As good as Eddie Redmayne is in The Danish Girl, I recognize the critique that has been made towards the portrayal he was instructed to do. His primary focus seems to be more on (sometimes overdone) body language – a stereotypically “female” body language, in fact – and less on the thoughts and feelings of the character. He does well overall, for sure, and Vikander’s performance is solid also, but I’d say the Best Supporting Actress award she’s currently nominated for should be for Ex Machina as opposed to this film.
People also dislike the concept of Einar/Lili feeling like she cannot truly call herself a woman until she undergoes a sex change operation, seeing as we now inhabit a world where your genitals shouldn’t have any role in whether you refer to yourself as man/woman (since those words have recently stopped being descriptive of people with certain biological traits and fashion habits, and are now entirely about the aesthetic). Some trans viewers have called this choice harmful, even though there are plenty of real trans women who don’t feel as though they’re properly “female” yet until they’ve also become female in the biological sense as opposed to just wearing dresses and make-up. It’s different for everyone, I imagine.
I recognize that this is probably not how it went down in real life since it’s a common criticism of The Danish Girl that it isn’t 100% historically accurate in its portrayal of Lili and Gerda or their relationship. To me, this doesn’t diminish the quality of what is otherwise a very skillfully made film, though it is somewhat disappointing that so much care and craftmanship went into something with so little effort on the accuracy. Perhaps we’ll have a more accurate biopic about this historical event some day. Perhaps it won’t be as good.
The film has a lot of problems and things I wish it would have done, such as letting Redmayne’s performance put more emphasis on Lili’s internal struggle rather than her body language (if he loses his Oscar to DiCaprio in The Revenant this year, I will not grieve a great deal). But its shots are gorgeously framed, its scenery is as encapsulating as the characters, its themes are powerfully thought-provoking, and its music makes it all the better. I am hoping the Blu-ray release is impending since I plan on travelling to Qatar, Kuwait and miscellaneous Arabic territories in which this film has been banned and litter the entire country with Danish Girl discs. Nothing is too petty for someone who disrespects disrespectful beliefs.