Like many others, I have mixed feelings about The Danish Girl. On the one hand, I am heartened that such an important but overlooked tale is finally being represented thoughtfully on film. On the other, I am troubled by both the cis gender casting and the film’s execution that doesn’t quite fulfil ambition.
Lili Elbe (whose surname was derived from the river and who is played by Eddie Redmayne) was a Danish transgender woman and one of the first to undergo gender-confirming surgery.
She transitioned from landscape painter Einar from Veijle (pronounced Vi-la), the latter being a Danish town that is reportedly incredibly beautiful.
Elbe’s autobiography Man to Woman was published in 1933 and that, along with David Ebershoff’s fictionalised account of Elbe’s life, The Danish Girl, forms the basis for this film of the latter’s same name.
Coincidentally, Ebershoff is an author I keep stumbling across but never quite managing to read. His third novel, The 19th Wife, which is about polygamy and 19th wife Ann Eliza Young, who exposed the truth of it.
Bizarrely, I couldn’t remember the number of the wife of the title and the ‘the’ and the ‘th’ of the number make it difficult to search in bookstores’ databases. It took me an age to find the book after hearing about it and being, by the time I went to search for it, rather sketchy on the details.
As a side note, the internets tell me Ebershoff also worked at Random House for 20 years, including being its vice president and executive editor. So he’s, you know, reasonably experienced and respected in the industry and that’s even more reason why I need to get round to reading some of his books.
But I digress enormously.
The Danish Girl tells the story of Elbe and his wife, Gerda Gottlieb.
The couple met at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where they were studying to be painters.
The film portrays Gottlieb as a dedicated wife deeply in love with her husband. Other versions say she was a lesbian and suggest hers and Einar’s marriage was one of convenience, even if it also involved a great deal of care.
Regardless, Alicia Vikander, who plays her, puts in an absolutely steller performance. I knew I would come away from the film with a healthy respect for Redmayne performance, but it was Vikander’s that truly impressed me.
Either way, as the story goes, Elbe started wearing women’s clothes after posing for Gottlieb when one of her models cancelled. It unlocked what had always been repressed: outwardly Einar appeared a man, but inwardly he—she—was a woman. Elbe is introduced throughout the film as Einar’s sister.
The Danish Girl is exquisite to look at it, as if the film itself is a painting, but I felt it lacked depth beyond its pretty façade. We never seem to the heart of what it means to be a transgender person and to grapple with not just your own emotions but societal expectations.
The film seems to get stuck on portraying what we already know or think we know, fetishising clothing and feminine eye fluttering and hand gestures instead.
Coincidentally, I saw The Danish Girl with a Danish friend, so it was fascinating to hear her perspective. For starters, the locations puzzled her somewhat. Apparently Veijle wasn’t Veijle, which isn’t hilly but flat. For reasons we can’t fathom, the film’s scenes looked like they were shot more in a place akin to Norway.
Also slightly disconcerting was that the film wasn’t subtitled. Instead, the characters were English-speaking and English-accented. Not what you’d expect of a film about Danes. Still, the accent would have been admittedly difficult to master and distracting if it were even slightly off, so understandable to not be.
It’s hard to know whether to recommend The Danish Girl as a film (and as noted above, I’ve yet to read Ebershoff’s book version of it or even Elbe’s own). I enjoyed it enough to warrant saying yes. As in, it’s enjoyable and fascinating and thought-provoking if you’re new to the topic and don’t want to think too hard about it.
But I also know the film doesn’t go far enough to show true understanding of the issues with which transgender people grapple and it is, when you even slightly scratch its surface, rather lacking.
So instead I’ll hedge and say it’s an important first step. There’ll come a time when, hopefully soon, we won’t rely on casting a cis gender person in a transgender role in order to get audiences in. And there’ll come a time, hopefully sooner, that we’ll start to tell some more robust stories about and for people who are transgender.