MiniReview: "The Danish Girl" (film)

Real-life Danish transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, whose life inspired this film.


Warning: This is an uncommonly long "mini"-review. This film obviously got my goat.


What is it?

A 2015 British-American film, directed by Tom Hooper, adapted from a novel by David Ebershoff, itself inspired by a true story.


What true story?

That of Lili Elbe, a Danish woman who was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, in 1930–31, in her late forties, having presented primarily as a man for the first few decades of her life.


Is the film a faithful depiction of her life?

No, but neither was the book on which it was based. Both depart from the historical truth, quite significantly. So I think it’s probably best to treat this as a fictional story (although it does use the real names of the protagonists, which is problematic).


As a fictional account, does it work?

It’s an engrossing story, sensitively acted, beautifully filmed, nice music and décor. Eddie Redmayne is wonderfully convincing in his transition from the male painter Einar Wegener to the female model Lily. The film had me hooked from beginning to (almost) the end.



The last ten minutes of the film struck me as a Hollywoodian attempt to put a cheap “inspiring” spin on what is a pretty complex and ultimately tragic story. The last scene, while presenting a nice image, was a bit Hallmark Hall of Fame-ish.  


But is the film “important” for its depiction of a transgender woman?

It undoubtedly is. For anyone whose mind is closed to the issue of trans people, the film will be an empathetic journey into the life of someone for whom their gender is the central issue.

          I did wonder, though, about the extent to which Einar/Lili is emblematic in any way of trans people’s lives. One of the doctors whom Einar goes to when he is struggling with his gender identity diagnoses him as schizophrenic. This was probably a likely misdiagnosis at that time; but the fact is, he does seem a bit unhinged, which is clearly not the case with trans people in general. And there was a point in the film where I began to feel sure that Lili would have to die before the end of the film, because there was no happy ending possible for this person who was so mentally disturbed. In the end, I (speaking as a homosexual cisgender man) felt as if Lili, rather than freeing her “true” self, was killing the half of herself that was Einar. And no one can live after killing half of who they are.

          Perhaps the reason Einar seems mentally disturbed is that we never get a sense of him as a whole person; instead, he’s always entirely consumed by his gender issues. Magnificent as Redmayne’s performance is, this is a two-dimensional character. We always seem him/her from outside, being emotionally tortured. It’s impossible to imagine this guy going out for a pint of milk, or flipping an omelette, without turning it into a drama about him and his gender.


I’m a bit unclear on whether or not you loved this film.

I’m giving it one star! I didn’t love it, and I really didn’t love the ending. I got tired of Eddie Redmayne’s smile (gorgeous though it is), and I have a creeping sense that the whole thing is a bit shallow and heteronormative (and, from what I can glean from a quick Wikipedia search, far from the historical truth).

But what I loved were the following: 1. The sensitivity and believability of Redmayne’s performance. 2. The relationship between Einar and his wife (another great performance, and this one three-dimensional, by Alicia Vikander). 3. The depiction, in the early part of the film, of gender fluidity on the part of both Redmayne and Vikander; neither was portraying standard notions of what it is to be masculine or feminine, and I personally found this wonderfully refreshing to see. (Interesting side note: By the end, both of them have been firmly gendered: Einar’s become fully a woman, while Gerda is with a good strong man who can take charge, rather than being the strong one in a relationship with an androgynous guy. What does this say about society’s comfort level with gender ambiguity?)

In the end, what I would say is this: if one doesn’t look at this film as being an accurate telling of the life of Lili Elbe, and if one doesn’t regard it as being in some way an emblematic representation of the life of trans folk in general, and if instead one watches it as a simple fictional story of one fictional person, it’s a fine film, and outstanding for its depiction of gender fluidity


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