Prior to about five years ago, nearly every depiction of transgender women in our pop culture was meant to be sensational and humiliating (see: Jerry Springer, Ace Ventura, etc.). However, the rise of LGBT rights and the emergence of transgender public figures—such as Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and Caitlyn Jenner—has changed the tone of things. They have helped humanize trans women in the national spotlight and given a voice to our experiences at a mainstream level in powerful ways that didn’t exist before.
With this, a new curiosity and longing for education has arisen—as seen by the rapturous responses to works such as the independent film Tangerine and Amazon show Transparent. It's into this environment, just in time for Oscar season, that Focus Pictures has released the well-pedigreed movie The Danish Girl. The film has admirable intentions, but offers scant insight into its protagonist. It fails to do what other recent media has done so powerfully: give an honest, clear insight into the life of a transgender person.
The film dramatizes the life of Lili Elbe, a landscape painter from Denmark who, in the 1920s, became one of the first people to undergo gender confirmation surgery. Upon its announcement, the film elicited two main complaints from worried onlookers. First, there’s the issue that —once again, just a year after Dallas Buyer's Club—a cisgender man, rather than a trans actress, was cast to play a trans woman. Second, pop culture critics questioned whether director Tom Hooper, the man behind the genteel, Masterpiece Theater-esque film The King's Speech, was the best person to helm the story of a trailblazing, boundary-breaking transgender artist.
While I agree with the first argument about the absolute importance of casting trans actors in trans roles, I have been surprisingly heartened to see how well lead actor Eddie Redmayne has addressed trans issues during his press tour. He seems sincere in his desire to do work that honors Lili Elbe, saying in The Telegraph that he hopes the film helps continue the work that trans people started, “because us learning to be allies to the trans community is so important.” While a high-profile role like this for a trans actress would have been a positive breakthrough, in the final film, Redmayne does quite well with the part he's given.
As for the second concern, it proves to be sadly spot-on. The Danish Girl is, in the end, a beautiful, frustratingly opaque love story that provides only a surface view of Elbe's journey.
From the outset, writer Lucinda Coxon's script—based on a 2000 novel about Elbe’s life by U.S. author David Ebershoff—does much to upend traditional notions of gender roles. The film tells us how Redmayne's character, known first as Einar, was courted by her wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who's the more aggressive, fearless, and sexual of the pair. Unfortunately, Lili's passiveness extends to nearly every area of her life. We don't hear her, for example, attempt to articulate her sense of her identity until near the end of the film. Likewise, she and Gerda share no intimacy around the transformation that's upending their lives, instead slipping into a shared pattern of referring to Lili as a different person, the way one would a guest in their home.
Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe
It’s possible that the type of dialogue I wanted so badly to hear could not have existed in 1920s, when the understanding of trans identities was practically nonexistent. But this movie is being released in 2015, for a modern audience, and not including Lili’s own explicit thoughts on her identity and transition seems like a mistake, culturally and artistically. Lili's need to transition is the film's central dynamic, so the script's failure to explicate leaves an emotional hole at its heart.
The film's strongest scenes involve the pain Lili and Gerda feel in as their relationship changes due to Lili's transition. For example, when Lili extols the virtues of marriage to her friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), she becomes overwhelmed at the realization that her own marriage is disintegrating. Likewise, when Gerda rebuffs an admirer, at an exhibition of hers, with the declaration that she, “has a husband,” she, in the moment, understands for the first time that she doesn't.
Such epiphanies are confined to their marriage, though. Lili's story, for its part, resembles that of a martyred saint's. Upon Gerda's insistence, she visits a doctor who administers radiation therapy to address her gender dysphoria. Later, she meets doctors who diagnose her as schizophrenic and wish to confine her. Around this time, she is attacked and beaten in a park. Even in these passages, her story feels mediated through Gerda's, who thrives as an artist via her portraits of Lili, and who shepherds her, by fits and starts, through her medical interventions.
Redmayne conveys the need as best he can, shuddering when Lili first holds a dress to her body, while modeling for Gerda (who is also a painter), like something is thawing inside her for the first time. But such moments feel rare and insufficient. By the same stroke, Alicia Vikander is fantastic as Gerda. Possessed of an amazingly expressive face, and vast emotional range, she's given the chance to convey everything about Gerda we might wish Redmayne had told us about Lili, had he been offered the opportunity. Schoenaerts is another standout. As Hans, he radiates stillness, confidence, and toughness with a droll sensibility that screams movie star and makes you wish he was in everything you watched.
Visually, Hooper's film is stunning. He captures the grandeur and beauty of all his locations in a way that makes you want to leap into the scenes yourself. The costuming is likewise sumptuous, making the movie enjoyable to watch, even as the script leaves much to be desired.
The Danish Girl employs art as a central metaphor in Lili's story. When we meet her, she's famous for painting bogs—ones remembered from her childhood—which she depicts over and over. When her identity emerges, her desire to paint these scenes disappears as though, in becoming Lili, she's solved the riddle of her youth and can now create herself.
Like so much in the film, this dynamic is left unremarked upon, something tasteful and sophisticated for the viewer to infer. Identities aren't metaphors, though, and trans people aren't lovely pictures. We, like Lili, are people and need our stories to be told. The Danish Girl does many things well, but it misses its chance to do that, which—given its title—seems like it ought to have been its main job.