I was waiting a long time for this film to come out! I first became aware of it in early 2015 while I was doing research for my dissertation – I think I had my eyes peeled for anything transgender related all the time!
It is about the extraordinary story of Lili Elbe, one of the first recorded transgender women to attempt sex change surgery in the 1920s.The film is probably only loosely based on real life events but it is a very powerful story (I’m not going to compare the film details with true events, partly because I don’t know what the exact details are, but also because I kinda want to review story-telling of this film rather than its historical accuracy – if I was reviewing that, then my review might be different).
Lili, formerly Einar Wegener, is married to Gerda and, at first, their lives as artists appear to be the perfect picture of heterosexual marital bliss. Then something which starts out as role play, ‘a game’ as Gerda calls it, becomes more and more of a reality for Einar, who realises that Lili is, and perhaps always has been, more than just a character. Then follows Lili’s journey to become who she feels she has always been but never been able to express before.
This is not a dry-eyed film which is unsurprising seen as it is not an easy journey for Lili, or Gerda. Although the focus is, of course, on Lili, I think the film really captures the sorrow of Gerda too, who loses the man she loves. The moments of happiness are almost as tear-jerking as the sad. Together, their courage and their love for each other is uplifting.
Eddie Redmayne is fantastic as Einar and Lili. I think my criticism would be that perhaps too much was made of Lili’s clothes and hyper-feminine mannerisms. I think Redmayne acted Lili’s femininity with real subtlety on the whole but there were a few close up scenes which really exaggerated the ‘feminine’ gestures (coy smiles, downcast eyes, delicate ‘ballerina’ hands) and I felt like these shots oversimplified Lili’s character and somehow made her seem more like a man in drag. I think the problem is that, for me, these exaggerated feminine movements had echoes of a pantomime dame. (I can feel an essay coming on about gender ‘authenticity’ here but I will resist!)
There were times when I felt the film was a little bit too safe. While there are some definitely harrowing moments – all of Lili’s trips to various doctors are awful – there was something a bit tame about the film as a whole. Don’t get me wrong, these moments were enough to bring on afore-mentioned tears but I just think it was missing a kind of raw-ness. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what or where this went. However I think some of the best moments of the film were near the end. The scene where Lili has a job at a department store with other women was lovely and also, although quite difficult to watch, some of the scenes at the hospital are amongst the best.
After so eagerly awaiting this movie, I was bound to build it up to be a triumph that it couldn’t live up to being. But although it wasn’t a triumph, I was not disappointed. I enjoyed the film and I would recommend.
7 out of 10