In London, the perks of being a student abound. Besides getting discounts everywhere, from high street stores to world class museums, there’s also the wonderful ‘£5 Tuesdays’ at Barbican films. Every tuesday I spend not at a £5 film seems like a tuesday wasted, so despite being by myself today I decided to catch The Danish Girl. And it was worth so much more than a fiver.
I’ve seen the poster around, of course, and I’ve heard the awards buzz about the film. Its hard to ignore Eddie Redmayne‘s immaculately made-up face, really, no matter how fast you’re tearing through the tube interchange tunnels. Besides the fact that Redmayne stars, and that there’s cross dressing involved, I knew little else. But, it’s Eddie Redmayne. It can’t go that wrong. He’s a true world class actor; and besides, those cheekbones are a pleasure in themselves – 100% sure they could cut through paper.
The story revolves around the lives of the married couple Einar and Gerda Wegener (played by Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, brilliant also as Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth, respectively), painters in 1920s Copenhagen. One day Gerda, a portrait artist, enlists Einar’s assistance in donning stockings and heels to sit for her, in place of a model who has cancelled at the eleventh hour. This sparks a game where they together create ‘Lili’, Einar’s female alter ego – Einar, of course, in cross dress. They attend a number of events and introduce Lili as Einar’s cousin; soon, however, Einar realizes that the female Lili is more and more a part of him, an expression of the woman he believes he has always been inside, until one day Einar slips away completely. Gerda at first rejects this transition entirely, of course – ‘Lili doesn’t exist, we were playing a game’ – but as Einar becomes more and more woman, Gerda is forced to accept the change, love Lili for who she is, and who Einar has become.
Firstly, the film is composed of breathtakingly beautiful shots. The story unfolds over three incredibly picturesque cities: Copenhagen, Paris, Dresden. The fashion is so elegant, with the men in perfectly cut suits, and the ladies in stunning Flapper pieces and flawlessly coiffed hairdos. Everything Vikander dons, as Gerda, is magic. The 1920s cityscapes are captured perfectly and with care. Its a plus that everyone in the film is so beautiful, too: you won’t miss the gorgeous Amber Heard as the dancer Ulla, Gerda’s best friend.
The story, though, is not an easy one to watch. If you’re looking for a breezy, feel-good movie, this is not the one for you. Redmayne is a master of human emotion, and captures with extreme tenderness and intimacy the traumatic turmoil Einar faces as he copes with his conflicting identities. With every coy smile, shaky gaze and that ever-so-slight tremor of the lips, Redmayne brings Einar’s character to life so brilliantly, yet so sadly. In fact, its almost difficult to believe that a fully male actor could so accurately navigate the path toward transgenderism, with an understanding that eludes even the most empathetic individual. Redmayne himself has spoken quite publicly about the efforts he took to fully step into character, and they are quite remarkable, above and beyond the standard duties of a run-of-the-mill actor. The film is not one about war, and yet it somehow is: the battle is one of emotions, the violence self-inflicted through the unbearable repression of what one believes is a natural, primal instinct. Many times the scenes made me uncomfortable, not because I was offended or embarrassed, but rather because of how true it was. You would be unwise to discount Vikander’s role – throughout, we see her evolve from the cheerful, carefree wife, to the confused, defiant partner, and finally to the strong character that refuses to flail in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles to the marriage. Gerda’s pain was so evident, her internal conflict as important as that of Einar’s. Together, these two brought such poignancy and depth to the film.
On a lighter note, everyone’s crisp, british accents, particularly Vikander’s, were so lovely to listen to. One thing that confused me from the beginning though, was why a bunch of danes in the 1920s all spoke impeccable british english – although, I suppose, if they all spoke in danish the film might be quite incomprehensible.
The film is so important, I think, because it makes people think about how flimsy and questionable the binaries that we set out for identities are. There is a scene early on where Einar (still Einar), tortured by his confusion, visits a brothel, where he pays to watch a prostitute and attempts to mimic her gestures, learning to adopt her femininity. It really makes you wonder: what makes a woman a woman, and a man a man? Is it in the way we delicately choose a fish at the market (part of the film), or the demure poses we strike? Is it in the way we wear a skirt instead of trousers, ‘beachy waves’ instead of backcombs? Why should anyone be repulsed when someone tries to break the mould?
Another difficult part was watching Einar visit different ‘doctors’, who label his condition as everything from hormone imbalance to schizophrenia and pure insanity, and try in vain to ‘cure’ him. Today, of course, a transgender woman would hardly be seen as anything close to insane, except by some extremists. To think that what is (generally) widely accepted today as a human right and freedom of expression, was once classified as a mental disorder, again makes me wonder if I am quite sane. Or if anyone is, for that matter. I’ve encountered the notion that physical disability is relative, but what of sanity? If there is a spectrum, who gets to decide where the median point is? As the film shows, people get hurt when we mistakenly adopt human preference as natural obligation.
The film also contains what I consider to be the most beautiful line I’ve ever encountered in movie history:
(Einar to Gerda)
‘You made me beautiful. Now you’re making me strong. Such power in you.’
I’ve heard that many wept buckets in the film, presumably because of the pain Lili suffered, but for me it was these lines that struck the most: lines uttered in gladness and gratitude. It reminds me that there is strength to be drawn, and joy to be had, in human relationships, and that is where we find hope even in the darkest of days.
Me thinks: Nothing has moved me so powerfully in such a long time, which is also why I haven’t been writing. An incredible, incredible film, but not necessarily for everyone. Already, during the movie it made me flinch to think of what close-minded, stubborn critics might hurl against a film about transgenderism. Unless you are prepared to watch it with openness, and to acknowledge that, no matter what your stance on gender is, at its essence there is love, love unyielding and unconditional, then you’re better off watching something else.
Watch the trailer here:
Cheers (to bravery, love, and Barbican tuesdays) x
P.S.: I found a great article on the real Lili Elbe, whose story the movie is loosely based upon. Read it here.