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Eddie Redmayne’s ‘Danish Girl’ a sensitive performance

By Emma Kahn

Section: Arts

January 29, 2016

“The Danish Girl,” directed by Tom Hooper and roughly based on a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff, tells the story of Lili, one of the first transgender women to undergo a sex-change operation. The film, set in the mid-1920s, follows the journey of a marriage between Einar, later Lili, (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) that must withstand the full force of societal pressure amidst an enlightening discovery for Einar. Although discourse surrounding the transgender experience would not become normalized for long after Einar’s lifetime, Einar is confident that she is a woman repressed in the wrong body.

There was no visible transgender community in Europe in the 1920s to which Einar could turn. As a result, Einar could not make full sense of or fully verbalize her emotions in the way much of “The Danish Girl” audience could. Much of the film is centered on dialogue of Einar and Lili as a ‘split personality,’ buying into much of the psychiatric world’s representation of Einar as schizophrenic or bipolar. As jarring as it may be today to hear Lili’s personality split into two based on her changing pronouns, this was the reality for the true Einar Wegener in 1926.

The scene is set first in Copenhagen, then Paris, showcasing the lives of Einar and Gerda as they work in their studio by day and enjoy extravagant parties by night, taking in the joys of an elite life amongst other artist friends. The two married artists probe gender boundaries when Einar steps in for a no-show model, sporting women’s clothing in order for Gerda to complete an unfinished portrait. They name Einar’s alter-ego “Lili” and debut her in society as Einar’s cousin. Lili begins to take hold in the film, captivating the audience as she takes her place in society. Einar’s quiet contentment transforms into an itching desire for the tactile pleasures of womanhood; she sinks into the role of artist’s model as Gerda adorns her in smooth silk stockings and dress shoes, eventually urging Einar to dress as a woman for an evening out. What was once a fun game becomes a gripping reality as Einar realizes that Lili is in fact a very real part of herself.

The film takes us along as Einar summons the courage to seek professional help and is falsely diagnosed with various personality disorders. Einar can no longer continue her artwork or any aspect of daily life, and becomes muddled in a crisis of identity, referring to Lili in the third person and struggling to make sense of the conflicting realities that have emerged since Lili came to light. With no predecessors or even the language to describe such overwhelming emotions, Einar becomes increasingly introverted, timid and scared.

At times, however, Lili takes hold, and presents herself as the true owner of Einar’s incorrectly assigned body. Her smile is iridescent. She tentatively steps into the world, learning how to behave outside of the confines of masculine life. Einar observes other women’s mannerisms and style of dress, slowly reversing the grip of masculinity that has plagued Lili for so long. Meanwhile, Gerda attempts to make sense of the changing attitudes and disappearance of her husband. The two travel to Paris, where Gerda gains success and prestige from the paintings of an elusive and captivating subject, Lili.

Einar’s transformation into Lili is navigated by Eddie Redmayne, who delicately traverses between notions of masculinity and femininity, blurring a sense of gender binary and finding Lili, pulling her out of the confusion and sadness that Einar feels. Finally, Einar and Gerda find a specialist who validates Lili’s existence. Meanwhile, Gerda must balance the fear of losing her husband with her support of Lili as a daring and revolutionary woman. Gerda, as a wife, an artist and a liberal thinker, has a brilliant understanding of the journey that Lili faces.

Much criticism has emerged from the decision to cast a cisgender male in a trans woman role. There appears to be a trend in the film industry of using stereotypical Hollywood-esque actors to fulfill nonconforming roles. In many ways, “The Danish Girl” has stayed safely within Hollywood’s norm by casting a cisgender lead and in beautifying the often insurmountable challenges of the trans community. The film is also criticised for glorifying certain moments in the historical life of Einar for a more captivating plot. However, the consequences and rewards of playing it safe are difficult to ascertain. Much progress has been made in breaking down homogeneity of gender norms and accepting those who fall outside the gender binary, but much of the world remains against such progress. Since “The Danish Girl” has been in production, the trans community has seen a few moments in the spotlight; although Lili in certain ways may appear only a timid icon for the trans community, she may also serve to educate those entirely unfamiliar or unsympathetic to the trans experience.

The cast, director and crew have gracefully navigated a sensitive plot, committing to the historical veracity of a film set in an era of ignorance, while treading lightly to ensure the smooth reception of such a film in present day. To watch Einar evolve into Lili at times feels inconsistent with modern trans ideologies. The dual-personality nature with which Lili and Einar are represented is not how we now understand the transgender community, but considering the historical period, this feels eerily real. Lili opens a certain intimacy with the audience, allowing us to feel her every emotion, every setback and every victory. There is no doubt that Eddie Redmayne fluidly takes Lili’s journey, crossing boundaries of gender norms with ease and effectively representing both Einar and Lili and the moments in which the two become one. Such amazing feats of style and acting almost gloss over the difficulty of the subject matter.

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