“The Danish Girl”, just released British film about one of the first men to undergo sex change surgery, proves unsatisfactory in the shallowness of its portrayal of transgender issues.
Directed by Tom Hooper, the film is based on a novel about the Danish painter who became Lili Elbe. It is set in 1920s Copenhagen. Portrait artist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) asks her husband, landscape artist Einar Wegener(Eddie Redmayne) to stand in for a female model who is late turning up to pose. Einar’s role playing reveals his lifelong identification with the female sex. This sets off a progression. Tentative at first, it speeds up. Einar is left behind and Lili emerges.
Gerda’s paintings of Lili in her feminine role attract far more attention than her earlier works. They move to Paris. There Gerda tracks down an art dealer (Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Einar. He was the first boy Einar kissed. Gerda’s relationship with Einar is changing and she develops an attraction for Hans. His long-term friendship, however, leads him to support both of them.
Lili visits some brutish doctors, before finding a sensitive one, Dr Warnerkos (Sebastian Koch), who agrees to operate. External genitalia is removed. Then after a period of recuperation, a vagina is fashioned. Lili is eager to rush the transition from male to female, pushing for ever speedier operations. Complications develop. Eventually, Lili dies.
The film closes with Gerda and Hans back in Denmark. A scarf that Lili had worn before her second operation, is caught by the wind…
Viewers looking for a deep study of transgender issues will be disappointed. Some reviewers have expressed these concerns. “It’s hard not to wish that ‘The Danish Girl’ were a better movie, a more daring and emotionally open exploration of Lili’s emergence,” wrote A. O Scott in the New York Times.
Some scenes are affecting, Deborah Ross said in the Spectator. After her first operation, Lili is seen “working in a department store, and simply just enjoying being a woman among women, which is lovely somehow, and throws some light on why the transformation was necessary. But otherwise, this isn’t remotely compelling plus offers none of the insights I hoped for.”
Dr Dick Swaab, the Dutch neuroscientist, writing in “We Are Our Brains”, said only one man in 10,000 will be so compelled to be a woman that he undergoes sex reassignment surgery. He said women wanting to be men are much rarer. Whether we become homosexual, bisexual, transgender or even paedophiliac depends on what happens to us in the womb, Dr Swaab wrote.