Eddie Redmayne brings transgender pioneer's story to screen

VENICE, Italy – "This is not my body. I want you to take it away."

When transgender artist Lili Elbe, played by British actor Eddie Redmayne, utters that line in Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl, it is the 1930s and she is in Germany, agreeing to become one of the first people to undergo sex change surgery.

The subject of much pre-release excitement, The King's Speech director Hooper's new film was shown for the first time on Saturday at the Venice Film Festival.

Elbe's decision to begin what was then an untested and risky process was the culmination of a journey that begins with her living in 1920s Copenhagen as Einar Wegener, a succesful landscape painter blissfully in love with his beautiful artist wife, Gerda, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander.

As Hooper tells the story, which was adapted by screenwriter Lucinda Coxon from David Ebershoff's 2000 novel of the same name, the couple's idyll begins to unravel when Gerda asks her husband to put on some stockings to help her finish a portrait of a ballet dancer who has cancelled a sitting.

For Wegener it proves to be an epiphany, the key to a door from behind which the identity of Elbe begins to emerge in a way that, ultimately, allows her to understand that it is the true expression of herself. 

"Lili was incredibly courageous in fighting to become her true self," Hooper told reporters in Venice. 

Remarkably, Wegener's increasingly strong determination to live as a woman does not destroy the relationship with Gerda whose art enjoys a new lease of life as Elbe becomes her muse.

As her understanding and acceptance of her partner's true nature deepens, so too does the bond between them.

 A love story 

Hooper said the film was essentially a love story that had a contemporary relevance given the ongoing discrimination faced by transgender people, but also in relation to the suffering of people caught up in the ongoing immigration crises in Europe and the United States.

"It is a film about inclusion, the inclusion made possible through love," Hooper said. "The only way to make inclusion possible is through compassion and love."

Asked why he had not cast a transgender actor in the lead role, Hooper acknowledged that actors from that segment of society face serious barriers to getting roles of all descriptions.

But he said Redmayne had been an "instinctive choice" for a role the actor agreed to do before winning his Best Actor Oscar for his turn as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

"I do think there is something in Eddie that is drawn to the feminine," Hooper said. "That was something I thought was interesting to explore and also I had to consider that for two thirds of the movie Lili is presenting as a man."

Redmayne admitted he had been initially daunted by a role that, as with the Hawking part, requires him to undergo a remarkable physical transformation. 

But he said meeting members of the transgender community had provided valuable insight as he tackled the challenge of becoming a woman on screen. 

"I have had the most brilliant education about many, many things," he said.

"Lili underwent gender confirmation surgery almost 100 years ago, and people transitioning now know much more than she would have.

"Every trans story is unique and individual; there is no one trans experience. But every single trans person I’ve met has talked about knowing, from their youth, that their assigned gender was different from their own identity." – Angus MacKinnon, AFP/Rappler.com