“Finally!” we all cheered. At last, in this ripe age of 2016 we finally get a mainstream depiction of transgender issues. Finally, some representation, some introduction of its importance, its beauty, its complications into mainstream media. Finally, we might start to stop alienating LGBT issues and subliminally defining the transgender movement as some kind of bizarre, unnatural societal separation.
But what’s this? One of the first ever patients to undergo transgender transformation, the real-life Lili Elbe, is being portrayed by the very cisgendered Eddie Redmayne? Okay, okay so his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything (2014) won him a well-deserved Oscar, among many other well-deserved awards, as frankly any portrayal of a sufferer of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) would probably appear like quite a challenge for any non-sufferer. So maybe we can get over the fact that one of the first majorly funded modern films concerning transgender issues, not to mention one of the first transformation operations, isn’t casting one of the many transgender actors and actresses out there. The inevitably “talented and poignant” performance might still help the issue. Maybe we can forgive such an injustice the film itself is seemingly attempting to make clear, even combat. Or maybe, perhaps, we can just try to ignore its irony.
But, we collectively sigh, no, it seems we definitely, unavoidably cannot. As soon as I exited the screen, I could feel something was wrong, a sort of bitter tasting wrong. I wanted to like The Danish Girl so much. I thought it could be so much, help so much; I wanted it to be so much more than it ended up being.
Many of the issues with the film, in fact the great majority, stem from the gender politics which underscore most of its 120 minute run time. Predominantly, at least for me, the complete and utter change in personality and character between Lili before her ‘realisation’ (arguably silly and unrealistic in its own right – she wouldn’t just put on a dress one day and suddenly realise she is a woman in a man’s body; that knowledge doesn’t just ‘pop up’) and after. She turns from someone warm, kind and understanding to the complete, unexplainable opposite: cold, distant and, if I’m being frank, somewhat catty, and that’s chiefly in response to the one person who supported her, encouraged her, stuck with and by her – her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander). Even if this happened in the real-life story of Lili and Gerda, which it didn’t – the marriage in reality was platonic, friendly, an amicable agreement – the relationship in the film, which is arguably the very heart of it, completely loses all ground it worked up throughout its first act. The support is lost, the warmth is lost, the message is lost.
What’s more is that it’s utterly laughable to think someone could change in personality to that extent through a physical gender change. What’s utterly maddening, exasperating even, is the gender stereotypes Lili’s character appears to conform to, post-transformation. Indeed, she turns into this cold cat-like image, repeatedly insisting that’s who she always was in the first place, yet she had the potential to be represented as any kind of woman, any mixture of characteristics, any image which would not only encourage societal acceptance of transgender transformations but encourage acceptance of all kinds of woman.
Instead, Lili conforms to simply the expected societal role of all women. Post-transformation she is dainty and twee and, honestly, an exaggeration: a caricature of female expectation. She could have been anything; instead she was something unoriginal, disappointing and bland. She’s a perfume saleswoman; limiting herself to aesthetic advisory. In an age where that woman has been seen, has been portrayed a hundred thousand times, in a hundred thousand films, all in the exact same way, perhaps a hundred thousand and one was the tipping point The Danish Girl finally reached.
And still, as we dig deeper we find the bigger problems hidden right in the foundations of the film. As I mentioned, in reality the marriage of Lili and Gerda was amicable, between friends, but of course the film adaptation had to market it, and how else to market it other than through sex? Not only did the overt, excessive nudity of Gerda in the first act grow wearisome through its inevitable futility, but it is infantile to think that Lili’s sexual attraction for Gerda would disappear completely, in fact invert itself, from her transformation. Such a thought process betrays Tom Hooper’s (director) and Lucinda Coxton’s (screenwriter) need to sell the film: to create awards-bait, through dramatisation of sexual conflict, and such a betrayal reveals the – somewhat surprisingly – shallow nature of the entire film.
It’s the small things about The Danish Girl which make it a big problem. Unfortunately, it’s also the small things which create the film’s basis and as a result we are once again, in this ripe age of 2016, subjected to a shallow misrepresentation pretending to be something bigger, more profound than it is.
The Danish Girl (2015), directed by Tom Hooper, is released in the UK by Universal Pictures. Certificate 15.