The (Danish) Girl Everyone’s Talking About: Movie Review

by Evan Read Armstrong

I have a confession to make: I really don’t care about Eddie Redmayne. I know that this may upset some people: Fans either love him (for performances like The Theory of Everything) or hate him (for Jupiter Ascending). Whatever their opinions, a lot of people have really strong feelings about him. For me, he’s rice pudding: Wobbly and pasty and too sweet, but if it’s the only dessert option, yeah, sure, whatever.

So when I walked into The Danish Girl, it would be fair to say that I was preparing to be underwhelmed. A period piece set in the early twentieth century, The Danish Girl is based on the real life story of Lili Elbe (played by Redmayne), the first trans woman to ever survive sexual reassignment surgery, and her wife Gerda (played by Alicia Vikander). The story begins immediately before Lili transitions. It focuses weight that a gender transition places on a marriage and is told from the perspective of her wife.

Fans of Tom Hooper’s other mammoth Oscar winner, The King’s Speech will definitely love The Danish Girl. It has all the Hooper hallmarks, namely that it’s absolutely beautiful. Every frame looks like a Vermeer painting. Redmayne is, of course, the star and he plays the part with the same constantly-on-the-verge-of–tears fragility that got him the award for Best Actor last year. However, in my opinion, the standout star of the piece is absolutely Vikander (who is probably hunting for an Oscar and should probably get one). Her chemistry with Redmayne is electric and her performance is haunting. Overall, The Danish Girl is a more nuanced exploration of the life of a trans person than other trans-films I saw at TIFF this year (here’s looking at you, About Ray). 

But that’s where my praise stops, because while The Danish Girl is a really pretty romantic tragedy, that is all it is. It is not the progressive trans film that it will be hailed to be.  This film is the WonderBread of trans cinema: you eat it, you digest it and you immediately forget about it. Another film that only focuses on privileged white people, and forgets that in 2015, more trans women of colour have been murdered than ever before. If you need a movie to take your conservative parents to over the holidays, The Danish Girl is that movie. The entire film takes place from Gerda’s cisgender perspective: We see Lili from a distance but we do not feel her pain. We empathize with Gerda while we pity Lili from afar. The Danish Girl forces no one to check their privilege, nor does it offend anyone by suggesting that trans people are actually (gasp) people. No one will have any uncomfortable conversations after this movie. As an audience we are encouraged to identify more with Gerda than Lili and this is the problem in a nutshell: This film is about looking at a trans person and pitying them and then moving on. Just like in Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999), The Danish Girl martyrs a dead white trans person and exploits the attention away from the trans people that are alive and suffering right now.

Additionally, it might be interesting to some fans that even though this film depicts an epic love story where Gerda was the main support system for Lili, this is a bit of a stretch. According to Lili’s diaries, Gerda actually left her shortly after her transition. The two remained friends, but at some distance. So this film is whitewashing in every sense of the word.

This film will be released on November 27th, a week after the Transgender Day of Remembrance/Resilience. Which is fitting, only because this film remembers the transgender experience as a dead one. It will be of no aid to the Cece McDonalds or the Gwen Araujos of the world. So go see The Danish Girl this holiday season if you want a good cathartic cry, but then google some real trans issues, such as prison reform or blood donation. The fight for basic human rights will continue even if the majority of the population is distracted. 

An earlier version appeared 

Photos via Focus Features

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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