The Danish Girl: the true story behind Tom Hooper's transgender film starring Eddie Redmayne
Hailed as the transgender film of the year, the Danish Girl screened in Venice this weekend to a 10-minute ovation. David Sexton explores Tom Hooper's sensitive tribute to artist Einar Wegener
After The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, whatever the most successful British director Tom Hooper does next is news. Possibly even bigger news is what our most captivating actor (sorry, Benedict) Eddie Redmayne chooses to do, after his Oscar-winning performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. What they have both done, it turns out, is to collaborate on a surprising left-field film, The Danish Girl, which premiered this weekend at Venice Film Festival, before opening here on January 1.
It’s the story of transgender Danish artist Einar Wegener (1882-1931) who, identifying as a woman called Lili Elbe, underwent the first ever gender re-assignment surgery, a series of five experimental operations between 1930 and 1931 which led to her death soon after the final procedure.
At the time, there were no antibiotics available, nor was there much understanding of organ-transplant rejection, nor any immuno-suppressants. The operations Lili endured included the removal of the penis and testicles, the transplantation of ovarian material and the construction of a vagina.
The doctor, Kurt Warnekros, nevertheless went ahead with a perhaps irresponsible fifth operation, another transplant, a womb. Lili, although by now much weakened and nearly 50, hoped for children. It killed her.
By the end of her life Lili appears to have fallen in love with her own doctor. Her 19-year marriage to a loving and supportive wife, Gerda Gottleib, an artist who had greatly assisted in Lili’s creation over many years, had been ended in 1930 by the Danish state, since she was no longer classed as a man.
Lili herself co-authored a sensational book called Man into Woman before her death, although she changed certain names and facts. More recently, her life-story has been proudly adopted as that of an heroic pioneer and martyr for trans people by the entire LGBT community, incorporated into history months.
In 2000, David Ebershoff, an editor in the US, published a rather saccharine novel called The Danish Girl, sticking to the basic facts of Wegener’s life but altering much else to suit his audience, including making Gerda, his wife, a rich American with a helpful twin, who had already been married to a ceramicist who had died of TB, and who had given birth to a stillborn child with him.
The novel also suggests, rightly or not, that Wegener was always an intersex person (with reproductive organs of both sexes, including rudimentary ovaries, giving her peculiar periodical bleeding) and throughout stresses the love story — “Marriage is the one single thing we should all most hope for in life,” says Lili — while thoughtfully providing Gerda with much support from her twin, and a successor to the husband who no longer exists in the form of Lili’s loyal childhood friend Hans.
The screenwriter Lucinda Coxon wrote a script based on this novel, evidently removing the Americana but following its main arc. For many years there was much interest in making this film, with stars projected to play Lili including Rachel Weisz, Marion Cotillard, Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow and Uma Thurman. But producers were wary of the transgender theme’s appeal.
Then, five years ago, while working on The King’s Speech, Hooper read the draft script and it made him cry, thrice. He has said: “The King’s Speech had that same theme of how we overcome the blocks to our true self, or our best self. But there’s something in the DNA of this piece that’s a much more extreme and profound version of that.” His rapidly culminating commercial clout got the project under way. He says he always wanted to cast Redmayne and gave him the script while he was working with him on Les Mis in 2012.
Redmayne loved it and from then on the project gathered momentum, taken up by Working Title, although it was only eventually filmed this year. Alicia Vikander came in as Gerda and Matthias Schoenaerts as the ever trustworthy hunk Hans, while Ben Wishaw appears as Lili’s Danish boyfriend who doesn’t mind her being otherwise secretly male (however much she does).
Hooper’s production quickly ran into controversy, however. Not so much for choosing a man to play Einar/Lili but for casting a cisgender actor rather than a transgender actor, the same criticism Jared Leto encountered when playing the trans woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Hooper has offered various explanations without quite being able to say simply that he had to have a star of Redmayne’s calibre. Instead, he has said he has long sensed “a certain gender fluidity” in Redmayne, who played female roles from an early age (Eton is a single-sex school), as well as Viola in Mark Rylance’s Twelfth Night.
At the press conference in Venice Hooper earnestly stressed that there had been up to 50 trans extras involved in the crowd scenes and a trans actor (Rebecca Root) playing a nurse in Lili’s hospital. He also said helpfully: “Access to trans actors, women and men, is utterly key and I feel that within the industry at the moment there is a problem. There is a huge pool of talented trans actors and the access to parts is limited. I would champion any shift where the industry could move forward and embrace trans actors in trans and cisgender roles and also celebrate and encourage trans film-makers.”
For his part, Redmayne, who comes across as somehow still the sweetest and most charming of students rather than a global celebrity, emphasised how much research he had undertaken in the trans community (“the most brilliant education”) and with what openness and generosity he had been received by people of all generations.
According to Out magazine, he even persuaded, or perhaps charmed, the trans activist Paris Lees, telling her: “Look, I’ve just played the part of a man in his fifties with motor neurone disease. I’m acting.”
The film is wholly sympathetic to Lili’s quest for her true self, her love story. “A doctor intervened but God made me a woman, a real woman,” she says. On waking from her last operation (only her second in the film) and being asked how she is, she manages to whisper “I am entirely myself.” And she dies, quietly and prettily.
It’s worth noting, however, that Hooper has expressed doubts about Lili’s surgical choices, blaming the past’s primitive duality about sexuality and gender — “I hope now that a trans woman or trans man going through transition would not feel the same pressure to go the surgical route if he or she did not feel comfortable with that.” Caitlyn Jenner, as it happens, may have had cosmetic surgery but she has not had gender re-assignment.
Hooper is sure the film’s time has come. He told Screen magazine, “When I first fell in love with the idea of making this film, it was perceived to be a very hard film to finance. Now, in a space of only five or six years, people talk to me as if it was an obvious film to do.”
At its Venice gala The Danish Girl won a remarkable 10-minute ovation. But will the vast audiences who adored The King’s Speech and thrilled to Les Mis go for it to the same extent? And will the trans community, still in the process of constructing its own history, celebrating not just its stars but its saints and martyrs you might say, be entirely pleased that the biggest contribution yet to that process should have come from such a mainstream, not trans source? I can only report that, for all his ability to transform himself so evident in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne never convinced me here. That Alicia Vikander as Gerda is so naturally beautiful doesn’t help, nor his comparative tallness and boniness next to her. He seemed always a man, a beautiful and specially charming man, but a man, playing a woman.
Perhaps no male actor could have done it better? To suceed, The Danish Girl needs to be a mighty tear-jerker. January and the awards season may well prove me to be a heartless dolt. We’ll see.