'The Danish Girl' is affecting but shallow
In 2015, the transgender community had more exposure in the mainstream media than ever before. This representation wasn’t always positive — there was the horribly disrespectful transgender reveal of the sociopathic A of “Pretty Little Liars” and the superficial view of trans issues brought up by Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show “I Am Cait” — but there has also been realistic and positive representation in the recent film “Tangerine” and the television shows “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black,” which more accurately portray the transgender experience.
“The Danish Girl” contributes to this mixed representation of the transgender community. Directed by Tom Hooper (“Les Misérables”), the film is a beautiful yet superficial depiction of the life of a transgender pioneer.
The film’s protagonist, the Danish painter Einar Wegenar (Eddie Redmayne, “Jupiter Ascending”), struggles with “the mistake of nature” that made him a biological man instead of the woman he truly is, a dangerous identity to claim in the 1920s. From our first glances of him brushing his fingers over racks of dresses and gently fixing his wife’s lipstick, it is clear that Einar is drawn to the tactile sensations that come from a traditionally feminine experience. When his wife, fellow artist Gerda (Alicia Vikander, “Ex Machina”), needs him to don a dress, heels and stockings so she can finish a painting, Einar has a visceral reaction to the femininity of the materials.
Einar’s experimentations with the flexibility of his gender start as a joking game with his wife. It begins with him wearing Gerda’s camisole under his outwardly masculine attire, but becomes much more serious when his wife dresses him up entirely in women’s clothes, his wife’s friend christens him with the name Lili, and Lili goes to a party in the place of Einar. As Lili, Einar becomes who she was meant to be. With Gerda’s unwavering support, Lili seeks sex reassignment surgery — the first person to attempt it. After meeting with several doctors and being diagnosed with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, they finally find an understanding doctor willing to discuss the possibility of surgery.
“The Danish Girl” fits in perfectly with the rest of Hooper’s directorial repertoire, with its beautiful pastels and elegant establishing shots of Denmark and Paris reminiscent of his other works. The movie itself is well done and affecting, but its story focuses more on the cisgender protagonist, Gerda, than Einar’s transition to Lili. This isn’t to say that Gerda’s narrative is unimportant, as the emergence of Lili and the loss of Gerda’s husband is a traumatic and compelling storyline. But even the film’s title, when said in the movie, is referencing Gerda as “the Danish girl” in Paris. It makes one wonder whose story this movie is actually telling.
The film has also faced backlash for its employment of a cisgender actor, Redmayne, in the role of a transgender person. While Redmayne performs admirably and will surely be nominated for a myriad of awards for his role, it’s a shallow interpretation of an incredibly meaningful event in the life of a transgender person. His interpretation of Lili is lovely and sad, but superficial in its attempt to show the emotions behind the new identity.
“The Danish Girl” tells the tale of two transformations — that of Einar to Lili and that of Gerda from happily married to single. Unfortunately, the prominence of Gerda’s arc indicates that while the story that’s there is beautiful and imaginative, audiences may have to wait before a transgender narrative can be the first priority.