New film fictionalizes a woman’s journey to one of the first gender-affirming surgeries.
By B. Root
Based on David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same name, Tom Hooper’s new film The Danish Girl is a fictional account of one of the first women to undergo a gender-affirming surgery.
Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) are married artists living in 1926 Copenhagen, who are unsuccessfully trying to start a family. While Einar is a successful Danish painter, Gerda is still trying to become established as an artist. A curator she meets early in the film is initially uninterested in her paintings, telling her, “You could be a first-class painter if you find the right subject matter.” Later that same day, the model that Gerda had planned to paint cancelled on her, so she asks Einar to fill in. Initially resistant to posing in women’s clothes, Einar is nearly left breathless with arms wrapped around the dress and body pressed against it as long-repressed feelings begin to surface. Einar is brought back to reality when their friend Ulla (Amber Heard) walks in with a bouquet of lilies, giggling at the scene. Ulla hands the flowers to Einar and says, “We’re going to call you Lili.” And subsequently Lili Elbe is born.
The couple then begins playing a “game,” as Gerda calls it. Since Einar had already declined an invitation to the Artists’ Ball, they decide it would be fun for Lili to go instead. They shop for shoes, a dress, and a wig for Lili to wear to the event. To avoid someone at the ball noticing the physical similarities between Einar and Lili, Gerda introduces Lili as Einar’s cousin. Lili is very shy and reserved to the people she meets—especially when a man begins to show interest in her. Henrik Sandahl (Ben Whishaw) approaches Lili while she is sitting alone for a moment and tries to start conversation with her, but Lili quickly flees. Henrik persists, though, following Lili and telling her, “I don’t mean to presume, but I think you might be the same.” Pulling her away from the ball, Henrik kisses her—and Gerda happens to see their embrace as she searches for Lili. Thus, Lili begins living her life as a woman, which of course causes conflicts to arise in her relationship with Gerda. Enlisting the help of Lili’s childhood friend, Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), Gerda does everything she can to support Lili’s journey to becoming the person she is meant to be.
The Danish Girl has received some backlash from critics who say that, yet again, a transgender role has been acted by a cisgender person, taking away an opportunity from a trans actor. The film is also being criticized for its historical inaccuracies: Gerda and Lili are portrayed in the film as being married six years, while they were actually married for 26; in reality, Gerda was an out lesbian whose paintings were highly homoerotic; Hans and Henrik were completely fictional characters created in Ebershoff’s novel; their marriage was annulled in 1930 before Lili’s last operation and death—both of which Gerda was not around for; Lili died from organ rejection about a year after her last uterus transplant surgery, a fact that was rewritten in the film; and finally, Lili was not the first transgender woman to undergo gender-affirming surgery, as the film suggests.
Despite these controversies, the film has garnered Redmayne and Vikander many nominations, including Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor and Actress in a Motion Picture, as well as an Oscar nomination for Redmayne as Best Actor, with Vikander winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
While Hollywood sees nothing wrong with rewriting queer history and presenting it as fact, The Danish Girl is nevertheless a vivid portrayal of the unconditional love and support that is needed in a relationship as one partner undergoes transitioning.
The Danish Girl is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
B. Root is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.