People like to ask me why I hate Eddie Redmayne.
Earlier this year, Redmayne won an Academy Award for portraying Stephen Hawking in James Marsh's biopic "The Theory of Everything." When you watch him, it's easy to see why. His mannerisms, physical movements and speech patterns are all perfectly calibrated to give us the closest approximation to Hawking's disabilities one could possibly ask for in a fictional portrayal. It's impressive to watch... as an impression. Redmayne can twitch and mumble and spasm his way through "The Theory of Everything" with precision, but without all of those exaggerated physical ticks, what is left of the performance? Nothing.
You are always aware of his performativity, but he imbues his obviousness with so much exaggerated, visible effort, it's no wonder Academy voters and audiences love him. Redmayne is an actor who wants you not to discover deeper insight into his characters, but rather for you to see every ounce of effort he puts into portraying them. In that sense, he's both an engrossing performer and a brilliant conman; all the razzle-dazzle, with nothing to deliver—the feel of Stephen Hawking rather than the real thing.
In a way, he was perfect for Tom Hooper's "The Danish Girl," a heavily fictionalized account of the romance between 20th century painters Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe that's being sold as a "revolutionary" depiction of a "transgender pioneer". The timing of this film's release could not have been more opportunistically lined up with not just the rise in transgender visibility in the media, but also my very own life.
For context: I had only recently discovered I was a trans woman since March of this year. In June, I started going out and presenting as a woman. I've still not come out to my family, who I'm currently living with, and before going outside as my true self, I drive to a secluded spot so I can change in my car, putting on a wig, make-up, and different clothes to align my presentation, drive off to where I need to be, hang out with friends, have a good time, then drive back to said spot and change back before I can return home and ensure my family that their totally cisgender heterosexual son has returned safe, unharmed, and uncorrupted. My life, as it is, is difficult. But it works. For now.
Then in September, the trailer for "The Danish Girl" debuted on the web, with Eddie Redmayne, my nemesis, already being touted by cis media for the bravery of his transformation. It's discomforting as hell being so early in my own transition and seeing words like "bravery" and "heroism" used to describe Redmayne, even though he'll be able to shed off the experience after his probable Oscar win, all the while having it be a matter-of-fact point of life for me and millions other trans women like me. But as much as I was dreading the inevitable thinkpieces by cisgender writers and the inevitable praise that Redmayne's style of performance would garner from critics and Oscar-voters... I was so damn curious.
So I watched it with a cisgender friend, and we were both aghast that, even with our low expectations, it was worse than we could've predicted: a boring slog with director Tom Hooper's typically ugly visual style and a laugh-out-loud embarrassing conclusion. It's well-intentioned, but every movie's well-intentioned in every directors' heads.
That isn't to say it's entirely without merit. Alicia Vikander steals the entire film with her more nuanced, magnetic performance; and bad as Redmayne is, he and Vikander share a palpable romantic chemistry that makes scenes of Lili and Gerda's acceptance of each other somewhat moving. And it's admittedly hard to distance myself from this movie when I see some of my own experience portrayed in it: the secret walks outside, the stares of other men, the longing looks at the mirror, the debilitating dysphoria, all played out here like they're part of a transgender playbook, ticking out the checkboxes. But when I see the form that that experience has taken in this film, and the lens with which Hooper uses to depict it, the emotional connection is lost, replaced only with discomfort.
"The Danish Girl"'s struggle to portray Lili Elbe's story magnifies not only the most glaring weaknesses of both Redmayne and Hooper, but also the cisnormative gaze of the transgender community. You get this in Redmayne's performance, of course, only instead of approximating a single individual, he's approximating femininity itself, ratcheting his exaggerated, nervous physical ticks to 11 when playing both Einar and Lili. As Einar, he's doing a proto-Stephen Hawking, with shaking hands, sad eyes, a sickly complexion, and a breathy voice. As Lili, he performs womanhood by way of stereotype. Amy Nicholson describes it very well in her LA Weekly article: it's “exaggerated, simpering body language, all head-ducking and languid caresses, which she learns studying a peep-show stripper—someone who is herself playacting a faux femininity for men.”
That peep-show scene actually happens, and it's even more embarrassing to watch onscreen. Redmayne's Einar examines a cisgender stripper's exaggerated body motions and then mimics them perfectly, as if learning how to sensually caress the back of your hand against your cheek will teach him how to be a “real woman”. His femininity is reduced to caricature. If the comparison isn't already clear, Redmayne is that peep-show stripper, only he's bringing it full-circle by presenting, instead, a faux-transsexuality for cis people.
Redmayne's work is one thing, but the way Hooper and his DP Danny Cohen shoot him adds a grosser layer to their portrayal of Lili. Like Redmayne, Hooper exaggerates and conflates feminine imagery to the point of parodizing them. His camera doesn't linger, or observe, or examine—it leers.