The Danish Girl -- An Opportunity Lost

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 08:  Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander attend the UK Film Premiere of 'The Danish Girl' on Decemb
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 08: Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander attend the UK Film Premiere of 'The Danish Girl' on December 8, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

I had an opportunity to see an early screening of "The Danish Girl," a depiction of the life of Lili Elbe, the first medically transitioning transsexual. As a film, it is beautifully shot. It is in many respects a cinematographer's film, highlighting the technical artistry of using light and space to craft a mood and transport an audience to another time. However, it is painfully slow in its pacing and at times overly melodramatic. They could have shaved a half hour off of the film and told their story in a more engaging way.

Mismatches in the styles and energies of actors in the same scene reminded you that this is in fact acting and not a window into a real world. The entire film was much more like the impressionist paintings depicted in it than the real events it was alluding to portray. Meant to be beautiful to look at with little concern for the reality that inspired the image.

I would hope no competent actor would do this, but it appeared to me that actor Eddie Redmayne who played the main character of Lili Elbe did no research into the lives of real transgender people in preparing for this role. It's as if he only went by what he saw in the script, and in that script everyone called the main character insane. Seeing only descriptions of the character as being crazy, he played the character as being crazy. Well, of course people described her as being crazy. People at that time just assumed transgender people to be crazy, and that is a stereotype we have only recently started shaking.

However, if Redmayne had studied the script a bit further, he should have seen the evidence that Lili must have been a rational person, and people who met and knew her must themselves eventually have come to that conclusion.

If everyone meeting her took her to be mad, then there's no way she could have obtained the experimental surgery she did. There's no way her wife Gurda Wegener would have been as supportive as she was in her husband's expressions of femininity and pursuit of a gender transition utterly unheard of in those times. Gurda said she believed her husband to be a woman inside (rather than thought to be), which is not something you say of someone you see as delusional.

When you think someone is mentally ill, you treat their mental illness, not give them what the illness tells them they want. If a schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur thinks he is Napoleon, you don't make him president of France. It's only when you believe someone is of sound mind but living in the wrong body and forced to live the wrong life that you help them on their path to living the right life in the right body.

I believe that if you could travel back in time and actually meet Lili Elbe, she would seem rational and level headed. I further believe that if Redmayne and director Tom Hooper had taken enough time to get to know real transgender people prior to making this film, the depiction of Lili would have been one of a lucid, reasonable person trying to live honestly to herself in the midst of a world that wants to interpret and label her as crazy. That stark contrast between being called insane by other characters while being seen as perfectly sane by the audience should have run throughout the film. Rather, Redmayne buys into the perceptions of the characters around her and plays her as an odd, troubled, disconnected character who could barely make eye contact, seemed lost in her own mental world most of the time, and described her own condition in terms most akin to multiple personality disorder.

Only in a few brief moments of playfulness does Redmayne's character seem like a fully aware and lucid human being. You can't see the film without constantly thinking that the main character is seriously mental ill, and in the 1920's and 1930's, seriously mentally ill people got locked up and forgotten. For this person to have survived, she had to have had the lucidity to convince nearly everyone she encountered in either gender she presented as that she was a normal person.

With so few positive and realistic depictions of the lives of transgender people in the media, this film was an opportunity lost. This does not stand as one of the positive representations we need and deserve, and ultimately only serves to reinvigorate old stereotypes that we are crazy people. Particularly tragic was that it was the telling of the story of a real transgender pioneer, and now that the story has been told, it is unlikely to be revisited in film for a very long time. A piece of our history has been commandeered by non-trans film makers, and now we will be left struggling to reclaim it for many years to come. I'm sure they thought they were acting sympathetically to trans people, but in the end, without transgender input, you can't trust anyone who has never experienced gender dysphoria or gender transition to tell the story of our lives, however well-intentioned they may be.