Film & Television · Sex & Sexuality

Movie Review: ‘The Danish Girl’ — Transexual Reality Then and Now

At first, however, she’s complicit, if accidentally so. One afternoon, Gerda needs help finishing a painting of a ballerina. Her model isn’t there, so she asks Einar to put on the dancer’s stockings and slippers. This awakens something inside Einar that he has repressed his entire life. From that point on, he struggles with his identity. Tentative role-play and dressing up gradually take over. Gerda makes a career for herself painting Lili and the couple moves to Paris. But with success comes the realization that Einar is fading away.

After failed (and barbaric) medical treatments and various diagnoses of mental illness (including schizophrenia), the couple finds hope in a progressive doctor who recommends two surgeries: one to remove Einar’s male genitalia, and another to build female genitalia for Lili. Although Gerda mourns the loss of her husband, her love for him — and her growing belief that he truly is meant to be a woman — keeps her by his side throughout.

The movie is absolutely lovely, beautifully recreating 1926 Copenhagen and Paris with sets by Michael Standish and gorgeous costumes by Paco Delgado. And, the inside look at how two artists might make a life together is romantic and intriguing. The script is thoughtful and measured, but the pacing is a little too even for subject matter packed with so much emotional upheaval. Lili’s pain is evident, but wouldn’t there have been some anger too?

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This seems to be the result of Hooper’s decisions as the movie’s director. The King’s Speech (for which Hooper won the Oscar) had a similar feeling to it. And, I may be the only person who didn’t absolutely swoon over his Les Miserables  two years later. He is a master at capturing nuance and internal struggle, but without a revolution to break it up, The Danish Girl becomes slow and, I have to admit, boring.

Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar last year for The Theory of Everything and was Hooper’s earnest young hero Marius in Les Mis, has been nominated for several major awards for his sympathetic portrayal of Einar/Lili. He is certainly working very hard onscreen and his transformation is impressive and often believable. But, too much emphasis lies on gesture and almost stereotypical detail. He wistfully looks at his delicate hands and feminine ankles. . . over and over and over again. He’s such a timid, little rosebud of a woman; it becomes tiresome. As a modern audience, we’re expected to feel outrage when doctors tell Einar that he is mentally ill. But, he does seem to have some issues, namely depression. Suffice it to say, I Am Lili would be a very sad reality show indeed. READ MORE

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  • Leslie Fabian January 28, 2016 at 10:57 am

    A very thoughtful review, though I think it almost impossible for anyone (who isn’t trans) to put her/himself in the place of a transgender individual (particularly, as you point out, in the early twentieth century, when society was so different from today). You are absolutely right about Alicia Vikander; she nailed the role! I know from whence I speak, as I am the wife of a transwoman and author of MY HUSBAND’S A WOMAN NOW which, Alicia has informed me, was instrumental to her performing so convincingly. We were invited to the premier in LA in November and, despite believing I was completely over “losing” my husband (in 2011), I fell apart as Gerda began expressing her anguish. And, yes; there might have been some anger felt, though would a wife in the 1930s have expressed this?
    Regarding Eddy Redmayne’s portrayal, I believe that thoughts of being female in the 1930s would have been far different from those of trans people in the twenty-first century. Furthermore, it is typical for someone in transition to experience a form of “adolescence” early-on. After a life-time of a man’s imagining what it’s like to be female, hers is very likely to be a superficial representation, at least in the beginning. The elation and relief from the very real depression, angst, self-loathing, etc., of a lifetime causes elation and, yes, perhaps a characterization of being female that may, indeed, lack depth (again, at least in the beginning).
    Thanks for this beautiful review! I agree; it’s a beautiful film.