One of the most anticipated films of January and nominated for a bunch of academy awards is Tom Hooper’s biographical account of one of the first people to ever undergo gender confirmation surgery in 1930’s Copenhagen: Lili Elbe. Taking the film firmly onto the awards stage by playing Lili is coy-smiling, softly spoken, thespian royalty Edward John David Redmayne and starring opposite as wife Gerda is the beautiful Alicia Vikander.
THE DANISH GIRL is utterly gorgeous in every way except one: an ugly stain seeping through the bespoke dress fabric and luscious upholstery. As we stoke the cultural fires of 2016 on the embers of 2015’s action-packed year – the year of legalised same sex marriage in the USA, the BlackLivesMatter campaign, Jeremy Corbyn wearing socks and sandals and raising eyebrows at oncoming toff scoffs, extended Middle Eastern intervention and a mind-boggling refugee crisis lapping our shores – it becomes apparent that the latest wave of films about progress, in themselves, aren’t very progressive at all.
Let’s call it the Redmayne Phenomena. Has anyone noticed anything about Eddie? Namely that he must spend 80% of his working life in make-up. His last two major roles (see THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) have consisted of his appropriation of the looks and mannerisms of marginalised peoples that he is not one of in real life. But all actors do that, don’t they? That’s what ‘acting’ is. Yes, but it’s 2016: the year that people demand that things claiming to be firsts don’t just look authentic but that they are. Is Eddie a good actor? Yes! Is Eddie the only actor? Yes – according to all major film awards bodies.
Exaggerations aside, the casting of Redmayne as this iconic trans woman in THE DANISH GIRL spoke volumes about the kind of high-speed, edgy-but-mainstream lives that we endeavour to live nowadays (or that we are encouraged to seek out). We like the idea of watching LGBTQ cinema, but not the challenging reality of it. So we satisfy that high-brow itch by buying into this “groundbreaking” cinema stock in awards season that actually sidelines its supposedly central issue, played by acting aristocracy Redmayne who blatantly hasn’t got a clue so resorts to weeping. In the place of the pioneering heroine I expected to see was a fragile chorus girl doing a terrified audition for the lead.
Released in the UK just a few months before THE DANISH GIRL was Sean Baker’s TANGERINE, also claiming to centralise the stories of trans women. Unlike the former, TANGERINE was and is a modern work of art. Not because it was shot on an iPhone, as most of its surrounding press focused on. The dusty neon-orange air that rises in clouds from the Santa Monica streets is every bit as beautiful as the Wes Anderson-esk wides of Copenhagen in THE DANISH GIRL, and not only because it is unashamedly devoid of aesthetic artifice and polish but because – like the best and most memorable films always have – it creates its own ideology out of itself. The two films collide in their allusion to the notions of performance and dress-up in trans conversations, but TANGERINE takes that necessary next step – the meaty one – into the humanism below the wig, which THE DANISH GIRL pointedly leaves out. TANGERINE was screened for the entire sex worker community in the area it was made and at various LGBTQ centres. It holds nothing back: a bold and brave fuck off to a heteronormative, conservative world determined to diminish its voice. That is the kind of film worthy of awards.
Redmayne, albeit his genuine go of it, could never have captured the same essence of struggle that someone going against the grain of society experiences. THE DANISH GIRL employs carefully constructed beauty to distract from this. And herein lies the main problem: if producers keep pumping money into generic scripts that get packaged as progressive, nothing will ever change in the film world, and we won’t notice. It is the same principle as dragging Meryl Streep into the first “big” film about the suffragette movement for 2 minutes to crank up its profile, instead of trying to rewrite standards in the same way that its, again, supposedly central, subject did.
So what is THE DANISH GIRL about? Superficially, the legendary Lili Elbe. Actually, the sorrowful friendship of a married couple at odds. Retrospectively, the familiar trumpeting of the noble God given skills of an actor we know all too well.
And just think what it would have meant to the trans community if it was Mya Taylor from TANGERINE who had been nominated instead of Eddie.