The Danish Girl: A Review

Redmayne in action in The Danish Girl. The Oscar-winner is again nominated for Best Actor.

Redmayne in action in The Danish Girl. The Oscar-winner is again nominated for Best Actor.

COMING to a film with a different perspective and background can radically alter one’s perception of it. This review presents me with an opportunity to talk not just about the film, but on a personal level about how a film can affect a person differently depending on their background. I’ve seen a lot written recently about how people who find certain things difficult to watch should just grow a thicker skin, and while I would never dream of censoring art (beyond common sense limits on appropriateness for the venue/setting), I hope this article will help the reader gain a better sense of how art can effect a person differently.

Art’s ability to allow us to reflect on our personal experiences – including in a way which is difficult –  is one of its great strengths. This does not mean people who approach art this way are weak or less worthy of respect; the fact that a piece of art can take on profoundly different meanings depending on the viewer is one of the most interesting things about it, and diverse perceptions should be seen as an opportunity to learn about our differences and empathize based on our commonalities.

Another note: When I talk about my experiences as a trans person watching this film, I quite obviously do not speak for all trans people. Because gender is personal and complex, everyone has a different experience.

With that out of the way, let’s discuss the film.

One cannot help but be slightly cynical that this film seems to be riding a wave of increased visibility of trans people in the entertainment industry, but despite this it seems to be a genuine effort to portray the life of a historically important trans person, which, given the lack of attention paid to the history of trans people, is very much welcome.

The Danish Girl is a biopic based on the life of Lili Elbe, who is often credited as the first transgender person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery – though surgeries to alter the appearance of and reconstruct genitals had been performed on intersex people as early as 1860.

The casting of Eddie Redmayne as Lili garnered a great deal of criticism, due to the feeling that trans roles should be played by trans actors. The performance itself is highly skilled, nuanced and exceptional, there can be no doubting his skill. However, over the course of the film one thing struck me; despite the skill of his performance, it is that of someone acting as they have been told a trans person would act.

This may seem a subtle and ultimately meaningless objection. After all, actors play roles they have no experience with all the time. The difference is small, and may not be noticed by someone who is not trans. The fact is that gender is, contrary to the beliefs of some, a highly personal and complex thing, and being transgender is even more so. Because of this, trans people have developed a number of ways of expressing our feelings which, while they may be illustrative, don’t have the nuance of the experience itself, simply because our language lacks the words. Because of this, while Redmayne’s performance gets a lot right, there are some subtle things which do not quite ring true to me.

Because of these small differences, I can certainly see, on solely artistic grounds, an argument for why a trans person may have been better for the role. I have no idea if there are currently any trans actors who could provide a similar performance, but I feel that it should have been at the very least considered.

As a biopic of an individual it is perfectly compelling. However, I can’t help but worry that this film, due to the lack of films dealing with trans experiences in general, may be taken as a film about being transgender, rather than a film about the life of one person. That it is about this, not the trans experience in general is important to remember, as many things said in the film certainly don’t speak true to my experience, and may well be misleading if taken to represent trans people in general. Throughout the film, Eddie Redmayne’s character refers to Lili and her male identity as separate people, with separate wants and personalities, while this may be how she conceptualized what she was experiencing, so far as I am aware most trans people do not experience this degree of separation, at least not in the way portrayed in this film. If anything, many trans people talk about the transition process as becoming more themselves, not severing a part of their identity.

While I may not always agree with the character of Lili, in particular I do not understand her attitude towards her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander). She is the source of a deeply compelling interpersonal drama; it almost seems as though Lili is not the star of her own film, even though it is her life we follow. This doesn’t make the film necessarily worse, although the focus on people reacting to the trans person as a problem may have some unpleasant political implications about the film’s perspective on trans people in general.

Towards the end of the film I became incredibly uncomfortable, not because of any issues with the film in terms of its construction, but because of its subject matter and my relationship to it. The tail end of The Danish Girl depicts Lili’s dysphoria; a powerful unpleasant negative sensation, relating to a trans person’s discomfort at the mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity.

For me this was particularly powerful, because it cause me to experience my own dysphoria fairly intensely. By the end I was on the verge of tears, not only due to the moving content of the film but due to the powerful dysphoria I was experiencing, a sensation difficult to put into words, the closest I can get to is a powerful and desperate discomfort and rejection of certain aspects of one’s body, a powerful and profound feeling of utter wrongness which can invoke panic and self loathing.

I do not mention this to wallow in self pity. Rather, to show how a film being evocative of certain feelings can profoundly affect someone due to their experience. I am not weak, nor can I choose not to experience the film in this way.

All of this said, The Danish Girl is not a bad film. It’s a surprisingly rich film about relationships and dealing with incredibly difficult situations unheard of at the time.

If one is able to separate the film as a biopic and drama from the film as a portrayal of trans-ness then it is great film, featuring a subject we don’t often hear about and well-crafted as a drama, featuring a number of excellent performances and some really top notch directing from Tom Hooper.