***Please don’t read if you don’t want spoilers***
Finally, after having waited for a very long time to watch it, I managed to get time to see the much hyped portrayal of the very brave Lili Elbe by Eddie Redmayne. I managed to sneak off for a night last week, while working away, to get a few hours in the cinema. I went on my own, which I regularly do, I have no issue with doing that. Well I thought I didn’t, until I realised that I was the only ‘man’ there on 'his' own. Lots of groups of women came in together with the odd forlorn looking guy who clearly had been dragged along by his wife and/or daughter! Disappointingly (or encouragingly) depending on how you look at it, there were no obviously trans people there. Once it started though, it was all good and I settled down.
As you can imagine, I was paying attention to their reactions to the film. The first time Lili ‘dressed’, my heart was in my throat. If I’m honest, I didn’t want her to do it. My reaction surprised me. People really liked ‘him’ by this point and I was worried it would mean they would go off him. There was a little bit of embarrassed laughter when he emerged but they quickly recovered. The other point that caused consternation was the first time Lili kissed a man. At that point, an almost outraged gasp was audible. I suspect it was because he was being unfaithful to his wife. After that, there was nothing by almost reverential silence, they were transfixed and you could almost feel a palpable togetherness in the room which was really encouraging.
I really like Eddie Redmayne. On the Sunday before I watched TDG, oddly, I’d watched ‘The Theory of Everything’ for the first time too. He really does have a very enigmatic personality and a screen presence and a dazzling smile that you just can’t help loving. Overall, as you are about to see, I have very mixed views of the film. But the thing that has to be acknowledged is that he is one gutsy guy and that he took some very brave steps as an actor to play the part. There were some scenes that really pushed him a long way and I think he did it well. Trans people know how hard it is to step outside your door - our own judgements of ourselves are bad enough, let alone others.
So in watching it, several things struck me that I thought were interesting:
The first thing that interested me, really surprised me. There is a debate that rages on about the film industry trying harder to hire trans actors for trans roles. Before watching the film, I didn’t really feel that strongly about it. I now do. He is a genuinely fantastic actor, but it really felt like he was battling his heterosexual, cis-normative natural reactions to play this role. Someone who is trans, spends years observing women and trying to emulate their mannerisms and behaviours. This is often to the point where you hear people saying that they have forgotten how to be a man. It becomes so ingrained in you that you know how to improvise in every situation and circumstance so that the presentation is almost perfect. Eddie doesn’t have that advantage and so his look was practically perfect, but at times, his mannerism and behaviour weren’t quite there and seemed very mannish. I guess, you could argue that the story is an evolving journey and that Lili would have been developing this, but the issue is that it just jarred. When I watched ‘Boy Meets Girl’ (the TV programme) with Rebecca Root, that didn’t happen. She reacted in the way a woman does, she didn’t feel like a man playing a woman. The same was true of the very fantastic Michelle Hendley in ‘Boy Meets Girl’ (the film). Every reaction felt authentic. There is something about them genuinely being women that they didn’t know how to play men. When Eddie reached a point where he didn’t know how to react or play it, he reverted to playing it as a man would think a woman would behave. So there was lots of eye lash batting, primping and preening that just seemed forced. I’ve listened to an interview with Eddie where he discussed this and he was so lovely and said that he was trying to show Lili’s 'adolescence' by being over the top and demonstrating uberfeminisation, but I’m not sure it worked really.
Hats off to the script writer, some of Lili’s experiences definitely mirrored my own. The idea of trying to break her wife into the idea of her ‘husband’ being a woman gently was something that definitely chimed with me. I hate to admit it, but I put on underwear under my clothes hoping my wife (then girlfriend) would discover it and find out. Lili also pretended that it was a game she played. When I told another girlfriend, I told her it was just something we should do for fun sometimes. Even though inside I knew its something I needed to do all the time. They also, later on in the film, captured the torment and desperation of feeling like this very well. They also had me desperate to stand up in the cinema and shout at the various Doctors who diagnosed her transgendered nature and forced her into dangerous quack solutions. There was definitely a lot that was good about it.
As we have already established on this blog, I am a complete cry baby, I ball my eyes out at pretty much everything. But I walked away from the cinema numb rather than having sobbed because of my empathy with Lili. The film worked much harder (maybe because she was the stand out star of the show) to push our sympathy towards Gerta, Lili’s hard-done-by-but-ever-so-faithful wife. Gerta was the strong one who fought and Lili was a little pathetic, self-centred, flouncy one who seemed like she had a split personality. I think that ultimately it was my inability to connect to Lili that really made me struggle with the film. I wanted it to be good so much and in many ways it was, but just not from a trans perspective. Where I suspect it will earn plaudits is in being a cog in the wheel of helping non-trans people to understand our experience a little bit more.