When I heard about this film being made I was delighted. While I didn’t know about the story of Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) prior to this, I do think that, unlike homosexuality, which is becoming more mainstream – both in film and in the real world – trans issues are still largely being sidelined.
So imagine my disappointment that the film didn’t connect with me at all. Perhaps my reaction – or lack of – was influenced by knowing beforehand that there were historical inaccuracies in it. Changes will always happen in order to make the story work on screen, but it is hard to care about certain characters – Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Henrik (Ben Whishaw) – or their influence on the main characters when I know they never existed. Fictional characters can work in historical pieces, but typically as an audience proxy, a way for the audience to insert themselves into the film, for example Joe in Pride or Maud in Suffragette. But to have characters who are shown to be having an impact on the lives of the main character and to know that these interactions never took place, made the scenes ineffective.
Even the main characters didn’t elicit any real emotional response from me. The script does its thing, and Redmayne and Vikander do their best, but I never connected with them. I didn’t feel for them as their happy marriage fell apart, I didn’t feel for Lili whenever she was in danger, usually from doctors who wanted her condemned or blasted with a good dose of radiation. Her being beaten by two unsavory men didn’t feel like a moment of peril so much as the mandatory scene in which the main character is beaten by people who are really just the personification of a society that is persecuting her. When the scarf blew away in the wind, among the beautiful green hills at the end of the film, I wasn’t thinking about the metaphor of Lili’s spirit being set free, I was thinking, ‘Isn’t Denmark flat?’
I did enjoy certain elements of it, though. The 1920’s aesthetics are lovely and it’s a time period I enjoy, that mixture of old and new as modernisation begins. The artsy world the characters live in is pleasing to look at, and before the story gets too heavy, the parties and society events are fun to experience. I also enjoyed the way Lili, when wearing male clothes, was, for the most part, wearing a full three piece suit, even while painting. The suit seems to represent a prison that trapped her in a masculine cage and when she was wore feminine clothes she appeared to be free.
But overall, I just didn’t respond to the film on an emotional level. I felt very little for the characters and came out of the cinema knowing nothing about the subject matter in general that I didn’t know going. I’m still glad it was made, it may serve a purpose for people who do not know much about the subject, in a way that Still Alice did last year on the subject of Alzheimer’s. But for me, it was a disappointment.