Film review by Jason Day of the drama directed by Tom Hooper about Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.
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A fictitious love story inspired by the lives of Danish artists Lili Elbe (Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Vikander). Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer by being the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery to make her a woman.
Review, by Jason Day
2015 was the year when ‘trans’ became more than just a buzz term (or an insult) and the progress made in helping to break down prejudice and ignorance about transgender and transsexual people looks set to continue.
Given the high-profile trans issues has received this year, with the phoenix-like emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, the release of the well-received, filmed-on-a-mobile-phone-camera Tangerine (2015) and even news stories about trans children, this adaptation of the novel by David Ebershoff has been released with exceptional timing and pertinency.
In her contemporaneous real-life of course, Lili Elbe was not a transgender pioneer. That is how we see her today (and rightly so), she was a person in the 1920’s dealing with the unique situation of being in the wrong body and having to get into the right one.
Also, the term would not have been accepted in social or medical circles (the film depicts Lili being termed by various doctors as a pervert, gay and a schizophrenic, narrowly escaping sectioning in one scene).
Her courage and bravery by becoming a woman at a time when being anything other than heterosexual and defined by your birth sex was at best frowned upon and at worst life-threatening, is acutely observed throughout the film.
A film such as this could easily descend into a mawkish ‘disease of the week’ TV movie, or exploitative and prurient schlock-dramatics to pull in a sleazy cinema audience. That it doesn’t is due to the sensitivity and respect shown by the writer, producers, director Hooper and, most apparently, the performances of the three main actors.
There are subtle visual cues throughout the film about the putative about to develop (the leafless tree during the opening has yet to bloom like Lili) and, as the film proceeds, Lili’s slow emergence as a woman (admiring herself in a mirror, Lili neatly tucks her male-parts away and half of her face is obscured. The split is thus made evident, but the bulk of her reflected self we see is clearly feminine).
Lili is not properly formed here but as she approaches self-actualisation, the clean symmetry and framing of shots of the street where Wishaw’s homosexual love interest live, the riverside locations, the trains at stations are eventually matched in her physical body.
Redmayne, after his Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything (2014) seems partial to a good transformative performance. This role is less showy in terms of manipulation of the body and speech but I feel it is the stronger performance. That gutsiness I mentioned earlier, in regards to Lili breaking with convention and societal norms to emerge as her real-self from the constricting chrysalis of a wrong biological shell, is all there to see in Redmayne’s skilful and emotional performance.
He shows some slightly ‘Widow Twanky-esque’ physical tics and mannerisms early on but, on reflection, this correlates with the immature, gauche femininity Lili is breaking through. It is an affectingly delicate and formulative performance.
As with The Theory Of Everything, his performance would be very little without an estimable female lead alongside him. For this film, there is an actual Danish girl to outshine him (as a real-life Dane, her casting adds an extra meaning to the title of the film, for who is the Danish Girl? Only Vikander’s character is referred to in this way).
Vikander, on some levels, has the stronger role, as the emotions her character has to deal with are entirely new and alien to her (Lili admits to having felt she was in the wrong body since she was a child). It’s a heart-wrenching turn as the man she loves slowly dies in front of her leaving her with a woman she admires but also resents.
The burly Schoenaerts is cast in direct physical comparison to the slight Redmayne, but his acting is subtly, tactfully played. He is the ‘new man’ decades before the term was developed.
The film is not without humour. Vikander talks with empowered relish about the female gaze upon her male portrait subject, him visibly shuffling in his seat, then barks an order at her dog, which both obediently follow.
The script plays a tad fast and loose with some of the historical facts and timings of this story (Lili had her surgery with two doctors and in four parts, not two and Gerda had already remarried, to an Italian officer, around the time Lili died), but this is standard screenwriting convention to distil things and does not detract from the heart of the tale. But the only other fault with this piece I can note is the pervasive accent on the negative.
Elbe had a mountain of problems to traverse and ultimately this is a sad story, but where is the joy in her life? There is a too heavy emphasis on trauma and tragedy, when a soupçon more gaiety was required.
See the official trailer on Youtube.
Director: Tom Hooper. Artemis/Pretty Pictures/ReVision/Working Title/Universal, 120 mins. (15)
Cast & credits
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Anne Harrison, Tom Hooper, Gail Mutrux.
Writer: Lucinda Coxon.
Camera: Danny Cohen.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Sets: Eve Stewart.
Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Wishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Emerald Fennell, Adrian Schiller.