The Danish Girl

January 9, 2016 at 10:57 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This visually lavish period piece tells the mostly true story of Einar Wegener, a fairly successful Dutch landscape painter, who transitioned to living as Lili Elbe and became the first person to have sex-reassignment surgery in 1930. Even though the events the story covers happened over close to 20 years, they appear in the movie to happen during a fairly brief period of time in the 1920s. This is one of a couple of liberties the film takes for narrative reasons. Elbe kept a detailed journal of her transition and many of the scenes in the movie come directly from her accounts, including how she first discovered her joy in women’s clothing. Where the film takes its greatest liberties, perhaps, is in the way it portrays the relationship between Wegener/Elbe and her wife, Gerda Wegener, who became famous painting Deco-style portraits of Lili and other women. This relationship is the core of the film, which is ultimately a story about unconditional love more than anything else. In real life, things were a bit more complicated and they were divorced and Gerda was remarried before Elbe’s surgery. That fact does not take away from the film (after all a narrative works or doesn’t regardless of whether it is fact or fiction) but it points out that the core of this “true” story is an embellishment. Elbe was a complex person, with often competing feelings about her gender and herself, very few of which entered into this story. The film also largely ignores society’s reaction to her transition and completely erases her relationship with her siblings. There was a lot of rich material there. Instead, we get a story of Gerda’s deeply unconditional love for her husband. It’s quite touching and, at times, beautifully rendered but it also feels very conventional. With a sweeping orchestral score and lingering shots of anxious faces and clutched hands, we were practically spoon-fed our emotions. In so many ways, this film felt technically very old fashioned, like an 80s Merchant-Ivory film given a modern twist. It was lavish and languidly paced and full of pining love and heartbreak. It lacked any of the edge or bite of recent films covering this topic; it was more “Remains of the Day” than “Tangerine.” As a side note, I know there has been some concern within the trans community about why a cis-gendered actor (Eddie Redmayne) should have been cast in the role. I am of two-minds on that. On the one hand, people are rightly upset when Ridley Scott casts white actors as the leads in “Exodus: Gods & Kings.” We have come along way from the days of Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi. But, by the same token, do we only want gay actors to play gay roles? That seems limiting to both gay and straight actors. At some point, acting is about being something you are not. This issue is a complex one and I don’t have an easy answer. Instead, from a critic’s point of view, I might suggest that Redmayne should step out from behind the physical transformations of his two most famous works. Otherwise, he risks being stereotyped as an actor who can only play a gimmick and I suspect he is capable of so much more. Likewise, I think this was not a bad film. It was beautiful and touching and well acted. But, I also thought it was capable of so much more.

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