An artist’s muse comes to life and kills her husband.
Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl offers audiences a fictionalized journey based on the true story of one of the first identifiable recipients of sex-reassignment surgery and showcases the struggle of a wife through it all between the years of 1926 and 1931.
The movie, starring Eddie Redmayne as Lili Ebe (and Einar Wegener) and Alicia Vikander, based on the 2000 novel of the same name, does its best to tell the heartbreaking story about transition that focuses both on a person coming into their true identity and how it affects a marriage. While it’s being branded as a film about the first ‘transgender pioneer’ — the film is equally about the experience born from supporting someone coming into their real self.
Before we go further into the review, it must be noted that the film has been heavily criticized for several reasons including having a cisgender man playing a transgender woman and being ‘Regressive, reductive and harmful‘ by some. Though the final casting resulted with Redmayne taking the role as Lili — Nicole Kidman was originally cast for the role and apparently considered it a passion project for years — until she gave it up in 2014 — and likely would have received some criticism too. While we’ll note that when it comes to how this story is being told through this emotional lens — different perspectives on such a contentious subject are valid and expected. If you’re looking for people of colour represented in this film, there are under a handful — an Asian in charge of laundry just passing through and a black man in a party scene — but this is a period piece so none of us were especially surprised.
In terms of delivery, performance, cinematic beauty and plot lines, the heavy film was made pretty easy to swallow for most audiences. It offered decent emotional insight and felt believable — and couldn’t have been released at a more opportune time: 2015, the year mainstream media starts to pay attention to the trans community. For me, it was the pet dog that stole the film. This furry friend handled all the human drama rather well. Head canon: while the surgeries took place, the canine was being cared for by Amber Heard’s character — Ulla, a friend of the Wegeners.
In fact, Ulla is the first to call Einar ‘Lili’ when he puts on stockings and poses for one of Gerda’s paintings. The cross dressing starts out as a fun game for the married couple but quickly transgresses into a complicated sexual spiral that results in identity revelations and terrifying visits to poor medical professionals. Lili basically boosted Gerda’s career at the cost of her happy, sexually active marriage.
This arthouse film, still destined for some acclaim, grapples with a lot of tough issues — touches on everything from the spark of desire to cross the gender threshold (to following through) to homophobia (in a gay-bashing scene in Paris).
While the film does a good job of making audiences empathize with Lili as she comes to life onscreen (and into her own) — it’s painful to watch Gerda slowly lose her husband, and in extension, her marriage. Because while she is very supportive of Lili, her own needs are often compromised — like when she wants her husband’s support at an event and Lili insists on staying at home. “Not everything is about you,” she says, after a mini breakdown while running home through the rain.
The film doesn’t address Gerda’s real life bisexuality — which was likely deliberate so as to avoid complicating the plot. But it does tackle the fact that when Lili takes over the human vessel, straight cisgender male Einar becomes socially extinct while Lili is a transgender female who enjoys male attention. As you can imagine, a wife may not be totally cool with her husband straying — which first happens before anyone, including Einar, accepts that Lili is real.
Gerda’s devotion to her marriage is also made evident when Einar’s childhood friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) is introduced and expresses a clear interest in the frustrated wife. His support for Lili is also genuine and he delivers one of the film’s most memorable lines when seeing her off to make the official transition: “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life — and you’ve been two of them.”
It’s ambitious for a movie to take on such a socially sensitive subject matter and produce a quality piece of entertainment in one — and while some may highlight its social failings, the movie was solid and worth watching.
The Danish Girl opens in theatres Dec. 11.
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