‘The Danish Girl’
January is always a busy month, film-wise, here in the UK. It’s when we get all the Oscar-hopefuls that crowded US cinemas in the build up to New Year, creating a backlog of higher-brow (if occasionally very dull) movies to act as a counterweight to spring and summer’s blockbuster fun and fluff.
This year is no exception, and I’m currently burning off all those Christmas calories just by running from screen to screen trying to catch up with them. Yesterday, I finally got around to seeing The Danish Girl, from director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon. The film is based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by the life story of Lili Elbe, a Danish transgender woman (born Einar Wegener) who, in 1930, became one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
Though surely coincidental, the timing of the film’s release seems prescient, coming at the end of a year in which transgender rights and issues shifted to the forefront of public debate. This was a year in which Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, in which trans actress Jamie Clayton featured prominently in the Netflix series Sense 8 (itself created by trans filmmakers Lana and Lilly Wachowski); in which British soap opera Eastenders featured its first trans character , and in which actor and comedian Bethany Black became the first trans performer to appear in Doctor Who (after making her debut in Russell T. Davies’s Cucumber and its sister show Banana.)
While areas of that debate remain heated (witness the controversy when Germaine Greer was invited to speak on Iris’s doorstep, at Cardiff University), there’s little doubt that the visibility of trans people in the mainstream media has increased exponentially in just the last 12 months.
Still, these are very much early days, and so it should come as no surprise that a $15million film like The Danish Girl, directed by one Oscar-winner (Hooper) and starring another (Eddie Redmayne), is aimed not at an audience already well-versed in that debate, but squarely towards the mainstream, at those who enjoy a good costume drama and tearjerker.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in this blogger’s opinion. While last year’s iPhone-filmed Tangerine may have wowed the critics, its abrasive subject matter is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of those previously unsympathetic to trans characters. If there are any parallels at all between mainstream films featuring trans protagonists and those featuring gay or lesbian ones, we’re still very much in the “coming out” years. Those films and TV shows, by and large, will be stories about transition, and surely a sympathetic “coming out” story is preferable to the shock tactics of The Crying Game or the monstrous depiction offered by The Silence of the Lambs.
Even so, in chasing after a larger audience, the film raises a number of questions in that wider debate. Is it right and proper, some ask, to cast a cisgender actor such as Redmayne in a trans role? It’s a difficult one, to which there’s no easy answer, particular if the story being told is one of transition, in which we must see a character both “before” and “after”. Also, the reality is that to justify its budget a film like The Danish Girl needs a star on its poster, and the number of big name trans actors remains very, very small.
The other question that’s been raised is one of perspective. Much of The Danish Girl is seen not through the eyes of Lili but those of her sympathetic and loving wife, Gerda, played by the ever-brilliant Alicia Vikander. Some of that criticism is, I think, a little unfair. Lili’s transition isn’t something that happens to Lili alone; it dramatically changes the dynamics of her relationship with Gerda, from one of romance and sexual attraction to one of friendship and unconditional love, so it’s only right that we see this secondary transformation from both points of view.
But it’s again worth remembering our all-important mainstream audience. Look at any film where a general audience is asked to empathise with the “Other”, and you’ll almost invariably find the audience’s mirror within the film itself, from Denzel Washington’s heterosexual lawyer in Philadelphia to Liam Neeson’s goyish industrialist in Schindler’s List. Rightly or wrongly, that’s simply how it’s done.
Fittingly, for a film whose protagonists are painters, almost every frame of The Danish Girl is visually breathtaking. Cinematographer Danny Cohen (who also worked with Hooper on The King’ s Speech) makes the most of historic Copenhagen, while creating interesting motifs based on divisions and reflections throughout. The camera adores both Redmayne and Vikander, the former really embodying that sense of being uncomfortable in his own skin as Einar, and only truly herself as Lili, while Vikander once again quietly steals every scene she’s in. (See also: Ex-Machina , The Man from U.N.C.LE. and Anna Karenina.)
If I’ve one criticism, it’s that all this ravishing beauty comes at a cost. Though Coxon’s script and Redmayne’s performance do explore the physical side of Lili’s experience and that sense of disembodiment, much of the transition is about surface, about clothing and mannerisms, make-up and hair. Perhaps this is more a reflection of an era in which men and women were expected to look and behave very differently to one another. However, following a year in which Caitlyn Jenner joked that the hardest part of being a woman was “figuring out what to wear”, I wonder if this emphasis on traditional femininity and beauty is particularly helpful.
I also had a sense of the emotion being squashed by so much style. While last year’s Carol struck for me the right balance between beautiful visuals and emotional heft, The Danish Girl’s final scenes were exquisite to look at, but emotionally subdued and oddly anticlimactic.
Still, as always, it would be interesting to know what everyone else thinks, so if you’ve seen The Danish Girl we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
(Note: This post was updated on March 9th 2016 to acknowledge both Lana and Lilly Wachowski as trans filmmakers and creators of Sense 8.)