“The Danish Girl”: The First Transgender Surgery

Tom Hooper‘s new film The Danish Girl is based on David Ebershoffs 2000 novel about the lives of artist Gerda Wegener and her transgender artist spouse Einar, who became Lili Elbe in the 1920’s and 30’s. Although a fictionalized account, the book was based on Wegener’s actual diaries.

Not all would agree, but Rex Reed, New York Observer, calls Eddie Redmayne‘s role as Lili “the performance of the year” and further states, “Lucinda Coxon’s beautifully collated screenplay…tackles a complex subject with dignity and respect, leaving nothing out. In the process, you will learn more about gender crisis than you ever thought possible.”

Reed adds that The Danish Girl is “about the first known case of transgender surgery recorded in medical history.” More about the plot:

It’s 1926 in Copenhagen and Einar is a painter of landscapes on the verge of success, and the passionate and actively heterosexual husband of a beautiful fellow artist named Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who specializes in portraits. Then everything is altered dramatically the first time he poses as a favor for Gerda while she’s waiting for her model to arrive. Reluctantly, he dons silk stockings and matching pumps, and his embarrassment slowly turns to a confusing confrontation with feelings he’s repressed since childhood. The unexpected ecstasy in Mr. Redmayne’s face of the way the fabric feels to his touch is a clue to things to come.
You experience firsthand the challenges transgendered people endured nearly a century ago and still experience today—brutal physical examinations, homophobic violence, specialists who prescribe primitive medical experiments like penis radiation and drill holes into the brain to cure what they erroneously diagnose as schizophrenia. Einar loves Gerda, but the only way he feels fulfilled is to live with her as Lili…

The Trailer

Portrayal of Trans Issues

Jase Peeples, The Advocate:

Redmayne spent months preparing for his role by doing what he believes is essential for every ally: listening to trans people share their experiences. He credits the many people who generously shared stories with informing the choices he made bringing Elbe to life. ‘One woman talked about when she was transitioning, this period that she called hyper-feminization. A time when you start investigating using makeup, but you use too much or the clothes you choose — you’re going to extremes. She described it as sort of being like a teenage girl’s adolescence when you’re trying things, you’re finding things, and discovering things. That was important to me to bring to my performance.’

Dana Stevens, Slate: “In the early days of Einar’s transformation, Redmayne conveys the degree to which gender is, for all of us, a skill acquired through observation and imitation. Observing a pretty girl through the glass at a Paris peep show, Einar longs not to possess her but to be her, and the quiet moment that passes between them when she sees him copying her gestures makes for one of the movie’s best scenes.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “At one point, reunited with boyhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), he admits that he has considered suicide, but held back because he understood he would be killing Lili at the same time — a sentiment that all too many trans people share and one of the many reasons such a well-rounded portrayal is long overdue.”

Selected Reviews of The Danish Girl

David Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle: “Hooper’s strategy of keeping it safe is bound to bring in folks who might otherwise avoid such material. For the rest of us, we must settle for a film that is solid, but never quite soars.”

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “For all its period setting and opulence, ‘The Danish Girl’ is less removed from our own era than you might think; the physical violence and medical ignorance that Lili faces over the course of her evolution remain in place today. And while this film should by no means be the last word on an under-explored subject in mainstream cinema, it makes an interesting guidepost toward bolder stories in the future.”

Dana Stevens, Slate, reflecting on the existing controversy over actor selection: “If we can just get some of those groundbreaking roles—and maybe even those shiny gold statues—into the hands of lesbian, gay, and transgender actors, the battle against shame will be that much closer to being won.”

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