The Danish Girl Attracts Controversy on Several Fronts

At some point, perhaps, acting credentials and not gender identity, will dictate who gets what role.

Until then, high profile films like The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club will continue to raise hackles in the transgender community for having cisgender (a term coined in the 1990s to denote a person whose self-identity matches their biological sex) actors play transgender characters.

And yet, amidst the backlash over Eddie Redmayne’s casting as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl dwells a little known irony that one of his co-stars is a trans actress portraying a cis-female nurse. Her name is Rebecca Root, and her appearance in the film is a victory of sorts for those who choose not to live in or identify with the bodies they were born with.

Such was the case with Einar Wegener. The film The Danish Girl is loosely based on the real life experience of Wegener, who underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1930s.

He and wife Gerda (played by Alicia Vikaander, who won an Academy Award for this role) were both accomplished painters in 1920’s Copenhagen, although Einar’s brooding landscapes were better received than Gerda’s portraits.

One day, hurrying to finish a canvas of a young woman, Gerda asks Einar to fill in for the model. He laughingly pulls on silk stockings and dainty slippers while cautioning her not to tell anyone. Neither expects that they have just crossed a bridge of no return. For Einar, the experience awakens buried feelings and he continues to pose for his wife in portraits that become the talk of the town and bring her new commercial success.

Loosely inspired by the year 2000 novel of the same name by American author David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl is director Tom Hooper’s tender biopic of how the couple’s lives and marriage evolve and dissolve as they navigate Einar’s ground-breaking journey towards becoming Lili.

At first, seeing her husband in women’s clothes is a bit of a shared joke for Gerda. There is also the suggestion that she finds it titillating.

But as Lili’s personae increasingly overshadows Einar’s, Gerda demands a return to the man she married; something that is no longer possible.

Although Lili Elbe charted courageous territory during a time of overt homophobia and repressive sexual politics, history had mostly forgotten her until Ebershoff came across her story in a book on gender theory. Even then, Ebershoff, who is the former vice-president and executive editor at Random House Publishing, was faced with such a lack of historical material that he chose to fictionalize her life.

English writer Lucinda Coxon adapted Ebershoff’s novel into a screenplay in 2004. Since then, she has been the only constant with a script that had been attached to at least three other directors before Hooper (Les Misérables, The King’s Speech). Studios were reluctant to fund a film about a subject that is poorly understood and still controversial in some circles.  Indeed, The Danish Girl opened in Qatar it was banned from further screenings due to its “depravity.”

And so it is a measure of how society is at a fundamental crossroads, that Hooper’s glorious, gentle, classically-styled film has also been labelled too genteel and that he has been criticized for giving Redmayne the role of Lili Elbe.

The Danish Girl is not a radical piece of filmmaking history, but it does offer a nuanced glimpse into the complexities of the transgender experience.

The OUT North Queer Film Festival presents The Danish Girl on Saturday, April 16 at the Beringia Interpretive Centre. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the film begins at 6 p.m.

The OUT North Queer Film Festival features six films on the program, which runs April 15 to 17 at the Beringia Interpretive Centre. For complete information and trailers go to

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