Movie review – Tipping pointe of madness

2011-02-04 08:57

Film: Black Swan (Nu Metro)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Featuring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey
Rating: 9/10

If I were a betting woman, I’d put my stake on Natalie Portman to take home the Oscar this year for her shattering performance in Black Swan.

This gripping psychological thriller will take hold of your figurative gizzards and twist them mercilessly until long after the film has reached its climax. And you’ll enjoy every minute – though at times it’s excruciatingly painful to watch the protagonist disintegrate in front of your eyes.

The film uses Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a ballet everyone knows something about, as a backdrop. The ballet, written in 1876, is drawn from Russian folk tales, and has dark magic and unrequited love at its centre. It is a classic good-versus-evil story.

The female lead is called upon to dance the roles of both the pure Swan Princess, Odette, and her malicious, devious sister, Odile, who in the end tricks Odette’s lover into falling for her instead. As with any good Russian tale, Swan Lake ends in tears and certain death.

When choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) begins casting for a new production of Swan Lake, Nina Sayers (Portman) reckons her time has come. A technically perfect dancer, the timid Nina is the quintessential Swan Princess, but battles to find the dark sensuality within to portray the evil Odile.

With Thomas pushing her to dig deep for the bad girl who must be there, her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey) naysaying her ability and a newcomer to the dance corps, Lily (Mila Kunis), waiting in the wings for Nina to slip up, Nina becomes increasingly paranoid and her grip on reality starts to weaken.

Director Darren Aronofsky’s hand on Portman’s back throughout is what drives her incredible performance. Aronofsky is a master at capturing obsession on screen, as he proved in Requiem For a Dream. He can also paint a pitch-perfect character film, as The Wrestler, which relaunched Mickey Rourke’s career, illustrates. Black Swan blends both.

Portman is mesmerising as Nina. She keeps the audience enthralled as she battles an ever-growing horde of demons.

Though she is the epicentre of the film, Portman is ably supported by Cassel in the Svengali role. He is an egomaniac who is happy to exploit his principal dancer’s increasing mental frailty for his own good. Cassel has plenty of practice playing characters no one likes much. You may remember him from Eastern Promises and Derailed.

Another fine performance comes from Hershey, who is terrifying as Nina’s mother. She lives vicariously through her child, yet is envious of her child’s success. Forced to live in a bedroom decorated for a prepubescent child, Nina’s self-confidence is constantly eroded by her mother, who pushes her to do well but is jealous when Nina is cast in a role she herself never got to dance.

Completing the cast is Kunis, a lightweight actress from so-so comedies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, who acquits herself well as Lily. She is the opposite of Nina’s character. Free-spirited and a natural on stage, Lily becomes the catalyst for Nina’s breakdown.

Scary and beautiful to look at, Black Swan tells its dark tale with an elegance that befits the ballet that inspires it.

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