In association with the Grosvenor: Aike Jansen takes an extended look at The Danish Girl and the controversy surrounding Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili Elbe
After his Oscar-winning depiction of the disabled Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne once again bends his body to play trans woman Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. This film, directed by Tom Hooper, tells the real-life story of the Danish landscape painter who underwent a series of ground-breaking sex-reassignment operations in 1931.
Moving and tasteful storytelling makes Lili’s struggle as well as that of her wife Gerda (wonderfully played by Alicia Vikander) easy to grasp. Before her transition, Lili glances at her own reflection in smudged windows and mirrors, tries to imitate the elegant movements of the women around her, and feels suppressed when wearing male clothes, hiding her real self. At the same time, we see Gerda coming to terms with Lili’s identity, encouraging her to live as a woman but also dreading to lose her husband. The repressed tension of a trans woman feeling trapped in a wrong body is contrasted by the incredible shots of the Scandinavian wild, Copenhagen, and Paris. Although the cinematography is brilliant, there is a sense that Hooper overuses the beauty. Too many scenes are distractingly dominated by decoration, fashion items, shots of interior, to the point that they almost bury the complexity of Lili’s emotional journey.
The Danish Girl is a very important film when it comes to helping people understand what it means to be trans and increasing support and awareness for the trans community. Lili’s transition doesn’t even seem that controversial in the film, which is not quite historically accurate but does invite the audience to see and understand it in that way. On the other hand, the mainly superficial details of the process undermine the fact that the eventual historical operation is very dangerous and that Lili’s desire to live as a woman is based on a lot more than merely liking women’s clothes.
There is definitely a strong sense of a duty to tell this story in the right way, both in Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili and in interviews with director Tom Hooper. In an interview, the latter states: “Access for trans actors to both trans and cisgender roles is utterly key. In the industry at the moment there is a problem: there is a huge pool of talent of trans actors, and access to parts is limited. I would champion any shift where the industry embraces trans actors and celebrates trans film-makers.” However, in a film that will probably become one of the most widely viewed films about a transgender character, this character is played by a cis-gender (non-trans) man. With many brilliant trans actors such as Laverne Cox and Alexandra Billings, and gender non-conforming actors such as Ruby Rose, it seems we’re at a stage where producers can’t justify their claim to be unable to find a suitable trans actor anymore. Sure, Redmayne’s masterful portrayal of his twisting of gender is worthy of praise. But had a transgender woman played his part, she would have fully understood the character in a way a cis actor never would, it would’ve also been a huge break-through in the fight for visibility of trans actors.
In a response to the controversy surrounding his casting, Redmayne said that “there is an incredibly valid discussion for why a trans actress isn’t playing the part, because there are so many brilliant trans actresses, and I’m sure there are many who could play this part sensationally.” Although quite diplomatic, he’s right. The debates about visibility and the right of minority groups to narrate their own experiences are very valuable, whether it be about transgender, homosexual or disabled actors. In some ways, The Danish Girl helped to create material change for trans actors, by reaching out to trans acting communities in the cities where the film was shot and casting 40 or 50 trans supporting artists. One of them, Rebecca Root, points out that trans casting shouldn’t be so controversial because all actors play things they are not – a very clear way to remind us how ridiculous producers’ apparent anxiety to cast trans people is. Let’s hope the discussion sparked by the beautiful but flawed story of Lili Elbe will actually change something for people like her.