It’s OSCAR SEASON and there are just so many films I want to see, so I checked out the upcoming release dates and the first on the list was The Danish Girl. I’d seen the trailers and Eddie Redmayne seems to be on every London bus, I was excited. I fully expected to be emotionally involved, maybe have a weep and learn something along the way. I know I’ve enjoyed a film when I do a big breath out as the credits roll, in a ‘phew that was IMMENSE’ sort of way.
The Danish Girl was honestly, a bit…meh, a bit hollow. All the building blocks were there, a glittering cast (oh hi Ben Wishaw are you in EVERYTHING?), a true story to base from, sumptuous period setting, heavenly costumes and Tom (The King’s Speech) Hooper at the helm. But it was just very cold somehow, very distant. To try and explain it better: I went to see The Theory of Everything this time last year, purely to see Eddie Redmayne’s performance – I’d read he’d done serious research and training to play Hawking and moreover filmed it out of sequence. I went to see it with no interest in a Stephen Hawking biopic, no interest in hearing that story – just from a ooh impressive acting geek out time. The Theory of Everything really blew me away, I was totally invested in the characters and their journey, though it was a fairly soft focus and sugar coated telling of events, it was a proper immersive movie and I really enjoyed it. So much so that my technical appreciation of Redmayne was totally lost in the power of the tale.
In contrast to The Theory of Everything, I was interested in The Danish Girl for the story. I was fascinated by the story of the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery and had no idea the issue of gender, transgender, identification was even being discussed – let alone acknowledged by the medical community- in the 1920’s. Plus the exploration of Einar and Gerda’s relationship – that Lili was Gerda’s muse and that she supported his surgery and the ‘loss’ of her husband. The fact that Redmayne was in it was just a plus, I went for the story not the performances. However, almost immediately, I went into technical appreciation mode (because this does have good performances) never becoming immersed, never suspending my disbelief, whatever you want to call it and by the end I was up and out pretty fast, no deep breath out – nothing.
Having said that, there were some wonderful moments and do go and see it, because maybe you will get the heart that I missed. It certainly got me thinking though and it comes at an important time for transgender and gender identity discussions, education, understanding and so on – so if nothing else if this film does anything to reduce stigma, fear and makes things better then I applaud it. But I am not sure it will. This is a film about one person’s journey, and to be blunt, it just wasn’t that interesting.
Einar and Gerda live in a very small world, they are both artists in Copehagen and the film travels as well to the Paris art scene of the 20’s. Their best friend is a prima ballerina, everyone is beautiful, everyone is edgy and gorgeously dressed, the married couples all have sex every night and all the single people are having wild affairs with multiple partners. So far, so alienating to most of us. I’ve only seen Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina and she is excellent, so much so that I didn’t realise it was the same actor playing Gerda. Vikander plays Gerda as someone immensely likable, I totally wanted to hang out with her, and her journey was much more interesting to me than that of the title character. Her performance of how Gerda has to manage the unknown, of wanting to mourn the loss of her husband, but is unable to as someone who looks very like him is still there. The best scene in the whole film for me was when Gerda confronts Einar about Lili, “She was a game, we made her up” – the realisation in her eyes that her world has been knocked off it’s axis and everything has changed. This scene was wonderful, because it felt so real and relevant. There must be lots of couples have fun sex, dress-up, putting on each other’s underwear etc – but what must it be like when one of them says actually this feels right, this isn’t me dressing up, this is what I should be wearing, I feel normal now. If a version of that conversation was had in reality between Einar and Gerda, it is still happening now, in a small semi in Manchester say.
We know Eddie Redmayne is good, his Oscar wasn’t one of those -‘one good performance’ Oscars (Cuba Gooding Jnr – I am looking at you) he is a very talented and immersive performer. But you could see the work this time, his performance of Einar at first consciously observing and mimicking women then realising Lili is the true self and Einar the performance, was technically brilliant. But, and it’s a big but, Lili was really annoying. If you met her at a party you’d go ugh, so simpering and mannered, so coy. At first I blamed the period the film was set in, but as I said I would totally hang out with Gerda, she was great, so it’s not that. And while it is horrid to watch a person go through all of the different avenues Einar went down before finding his final path to Lili – the montage of doctors was frightening, the physical assault, the depression – I just didn’t really like Lili enough to really get involved.
And this defines the whole film for me, I didn’t really care about Einar /Lili, but I liked that it fired my brain into realising all the things that happen to Einar are still happening, it’s nearly 100 years later and we still don’t seem much further along. Yes, we have Caitlyn Jenner on the front of Vanity Fair and Laverne Cox on the front of Time, but these are still very ‘comfortable’ images of trans women and where are the trans men? Am I missing them? Check out the Twitter response to ‘Call me Caitlyn’ with trans people essentially saying – where’s my Vanity Fair cover? Laverne Cox has used her time in the spotlight to repeatedly remind the world that being transgender, particularly when you don’t have money, or fame, or a great job on a critically acclaimed TV show (and if you haven’t watched Orange is the New Black, run, don’t walk, watch it now) it can be at best a tough and lonely world and at worse you will be killed. Watch her incredible and measured response to a chat show host’s trite comment “Your private parts are different now” – what could you do with 1 minute to talk about an important? I could do nothing this good.
Lili at one point in the film says ‘Like a real woman’, and the phrase is echoed throughout, early in the film it’s show that Gerda has not got pregnant and this is causing a sadness, a failure of her as a woman somehow. Wider questions about gender and gender definition are not explored in depth by the film of course, this is a film about Einar/Lili and Gerda, but this triggers really interesting things for me. What does make a woman? Is a vagina and breasts enough, or is it being a wife? A mother? Is it the way we dress? I don’t consider myself a girlie girl – but what does that really mean anyway? I see friends with children working really hard not to gender stereotype their children, but sometimes girls like dolls and boys like to smash things. Is that ok? I will post some links in a moment for some recent articles that are continuing this debate – if you’re interested have a look, forward them on and keep the conversation going.
The Danish Girl may work for some people, the awards nominations show it’s being recognised and it’s got great performances and looks gorgeous and there are some really moving moments, but I think some people’s stories are just not interesting enough to carry a whole film. For me Stephen Hawking’s (or arguably Jane Hawking’s) story was more than enough, but Lili Elbe’s not so much.
More on gender, transgender and so on: - With thanks to Against Me! cos I stole their lyrics for a blog title - try the whole song - True Trans Soul Rebel - Great read on gender fluidity - Responses to Jaden Smith wearing skirts 1. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/will-smiths-son-as-the-new-face-of-louis-vuitton-womenswear-might-seem-progressive-but-its-a6797461.html 2. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jaden-smith-isnt-threatening-transgender-territory-hes-a-non-binary-icon-a6799411.html