Natalie Portman in a film about ballet, directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) with a strong psychological almost surreal streak, might not be considered your usual multiplex draw.
$327 million worldwide box office and a best actress Oscar would suggest otherwise and whilst certainly not for everyone, this is undoubtedly top quality entertainment of the disturbing kind.
Nina Sayers (Portman) is a ballerina with a prominent New York ballet company, demure, innocent and driven by mother vicariously living out her own past ‘glories” through her daughter.
Nina is good but not yet a star, until an opportunity presents that finally gives her the opportunity to shine in the eyes of company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) and hopefully the ticket paying general public.
There is a problem, in fact several of them. Outgoing diva Beth (Ryder) is not going to go quietly into the night and whilst Nina is perfect for the part of the White Swan Princess “Odette”, she is much less suited to the complex flawed Black Swan “Odile“.
To add yet more Greek tragedy to the mix, we have a newly arrived ballerina “Lily” (Mila Kunis) who personifies everything Nina is not. A natural dancer, prepared to take risks, let go, be bad and clearly very sensuous without even trying.
Nina is classically beautiful, a perfectionist, striving for the ideal and realizing perhaps too late that she, like all of us, is doomed to fail. Attempting to embrace the dark side of her character, at the prompting of Thomas, leads Nina to very dark places indeed.
Fortunately, the “Swan Lake” story is clearly outlined for us on several occasions, so even those of us philistines with no clue, have some idea where the play within the play is heading. As you will have guessed by now, most Opera’s and Ballet’s never appear to end well.
Whilst not a horror film, this skirts dangerously close, touching as it does, on self abuse, psychosis and for a mainstream film, some reasonably graphic girl on girl sex scenes. Perhaps as an indication of her transition from a girl to woman, capable of giving and receiving pleasure. This is not what the film is about but there are certainly occasions where the tension is ratcheted high and with a classical score underlying the point, Nina gets close to the edge and steps, perhaps knowingly, over the line clearly marked, “madness”.
Aronofsky knows how to photograph his leads, edgy, close and following the action from differing swirling points of view. This is a standout performance from Portman, taking real risks in pursuit of her art. Not only training enough to give a very fair approximation that she can classically dance but portraying a very fragile girl, in every sense of the word, in a world that is way more brutal than most of us would realise.
Whilst Portman did study ballet at an early age and trained hard for the film, there have been arguments as to how much dancing was done by the star. Arguably, does it really matter, Portman is a movie star not a classically trained ballet dancer at the highest level, does Tom Cruise do all his own stunts?
Portman is helped with some sterling support from both Cassel, Kunis (with some notable ballet training) and her screen mother Barbara Hershey.
There are a couple of missteps, two “effects” in particular jar with the scene, taking you out of the film for a moment or two, hint legs and pictures. These are small points and are balanced out by a very effective CGI sequence as Nina finally “becomes” Odile and marks her transformation, from which she may never return.
The film portrays the loneliness and lack of support Nina has from those charged with her care and the juxtaposition of the beauty and perfection of the ballet scene, with the dirt and ugliness of the graffiti strewn subway is a neat touch. There is a lot of stark lighting, bare walls, mirrors both broken and whole, featuring prominently, which as any movie buff knows is a clear sign, “here be madness”.
Incidentally, filmed on a budget of only $13 million, which for a mainstream movie is cheap indeed.
Disturbing, yes but in a good way.
A film that is mostly definitely not “about” ballet, with an excellent central performance from Portman, in a film that may not be to all tastes but is well worth putting in the time.