There's been much praise for Eddie Redmayne's performance as trans pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl - one of the first trans women in history to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It's also landed him yet another 'Best Actor' nomination at the Oscars next month.
While the Academy loves to recognise cisgender men taking on LGBTIQ roles, Redmayne’s casting immediately sparked a recurrent debate amongst trans communities over whether or not the role should have gone to a trans actor.
Some critics, having seen the film, have accused Tom Hooper’s movie of a lack of depth, seemingly caught up in the physical trappings of clothing and fetishising the experience rather than concerning itself with the complexities of Elbe’s emotional journey after transitioning.
It should also be noted that Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay relies heavily on David Ebershoff's fictionalised novel of the same name and far less so on Elbe’s own diaries (as edited by Niels Hoyer) greatly simplifying the relationship with wife Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander).
We asked three prominent Australian trans women for their own take on the film.
Katherine Cummings, librarian and information officer at Sydney’s The Gender Centre
As a then 51-year-old librarian, transitioning in 1986 was a huge deal for Cummings, but her journey started years before on discovering Hoyer’s book.
“I bought Man Into Woman back when I was a teenager and it knocked my socks off because, of course, I was very stealth in those days and didn’t know that there was anything that had ever been done in the way of actually trying to convert one gender into another.”
Her reaction to Ebershoff’s novel was far less effusive. “I disliked it intensely. Not only is it a badly written book, but it did a lot of very foolish things like making Gerda an American. It reminded me of Walt Disney putting groundhogs into Winnie the Pooh. But one always has to keep in mind that a movie, whether you call it The Danish Girl or actually say it’s the story of Lili Elbe, is always going to vary from the truth, not least because time frames become compressed. You can’t possibly tell the full story of a person’s life encompass of the film.
“I thought it was beautifully photographed and costumed, but that the character of Lili herself was not consistent with what I’ve read about her from her diaries.”
Cummings says the most difficult aspect of watching the movie was the speed at which Elbe embraces her new identity and rejects wife Gerda.
“I do a lot of talks and one of the points I try to make is that transgender people have responsibilities as well as rights,” she said.
“I found the character of Lili, brilliantly acted though she was by Redmayne, as being a person that I wouldn’t want to know, a person who disregarded entirely the feelings of anyone else.
“Admittedly most of us have experienced that, but we also need to realise that around us there are people who need to be considered, to whom we have duties and we should make every effort to fulfil those responsibilities. There’s nothing like that in the film. Almost the first time that Lili is out and about, dressed and made-up as a woman by courtesy of her wife who innocently sees it as a prank rather than a lifetime, she’s off kissing men in the corner. I don’t find anything like that in Hoyer's book.”
Kristyana Finch, president of both Adelaide’s transgender support group, the Carousel Club, and the Gender Diversity Alliance South Australia
“The concept that any transgender actor is going to necessarily want all the transgender parts is totally absurd, and there is a transgender woman [Rebecca Root] who plays one of the nurses,” Finch notes of Hooper’s casting choices.
“If you get somebody who’s well known, obviously they are going to attract a broader audience. If you get an unknown actor playing the part, it limits the films reach and I think Lili’s story is important to see.”
Finch says the lack of information and support systems in the film’s 1920s setting is something that a lot of older trans people recognise and that the experience of Vikander’s Gerda, accused by some critics of being too prominent, is actually a part of the discussion that is often missing and worth discussing.
“Although trans people say ‘it’s harder for me than it is for them,’ it’s still hard for them too. I thought it was really well done.”
Praising Redmayne’s performance, Finch was particularly moved by a scene where Elbe observes her reflection in a mirror.
“I’m sure a lot of trans people have thought of themselves in that way and looked in the mirror and thought, ‘if I didn’t have male bits.’
“There was a point there I was a little worried and made me feel uncomfortable when he seemed to be a little bit, well, let’s say infatuated with the stockings,” she added. “It seemed like it might go down a different path, but it was only a brief moment which is probably a fair thing as well because, for a lot of people, the act of actually dressing yourself is something that initially creates a certain amount of exhilaration; to finally experience being true to yourself.”
Community reactions to the film are naturally varied, Finch says. “It is a trans story. It’s not the same for everyone. People have many and varied stories about transition. I’ve taken to now suggesting that I haven’t transitioned, I’m just simply showing everyone who I really am.”
Michelle Sheppard, co-host of Melbourne-based JOY 94.9’s TRANS* positions show
“There have been a lot of films in the past, like Dallas Buyers Club, that really could have used a trans woman in the role, and when a role like this comes up where you are playing such an important figure, you’d immediately think ‘well, it needs to be a trans woman,’” Sheppard said.
“But this is set in the ‘20s when there hasn’t been facial or vocal surgery or breast augmentation. You have to portray this story as true as possible, and that’s where it needed to be. Most trans women I know, if you had them go and dress up as male, it would be uncomfortable.”
Sheppard points to the casting of Root and trans filmmaker Jake Graf as a sign of progress and was impressed by the central performances from Redmayne and Vikander.
“I could see they really tried to keep it simple and the relationship with Gerda was incredible. Alicia is a great actress and Eddie really did do his homework, particularly with dysphoria, fighting his feminine side while still wanting to be a husband, a man.”
She too, found the disintegration of their marriage hard to watch.
“I was disappointed to see the negative aspects in how she was pushing her wife away and immediately moving on with somebody else without really resolving her relationship. It really came across as quite selfish, which unfortunately paints that negative picture you hear about with trans people, which can be a reality."
While Sheppard is glad The Danish Girl is generaring conversation, she hopes to see more focus on the present, rather than the past.
“I do think current TV shows like Her Story are the stories we need to see and hear more of, rather than negative history. I want to see what’s happening now, today.”