Review by Jack Foley
DARREN Aronofsky’s fifth film Black Swan underlines his talents as one of contemporary cinema’s most daring and original directors.
It features a stunning central performance from Natalie Portman and brings elements of psychological thriller and horror to a ballet setting, complete with nods to everything from The Red Shoes to Hitchcock. It’s also utterly insane at times.
The film focuses on Nina (Portman), an experienced dancer for whom ballet and the pursuit of perfection is everything, but who suffers from insecurity, paranoia and the mental strain imposed by a domineering, overly protective mother (Barbara Hershey), herself an ex-ballerina.
When the arrogant artistic director of the New York Ballet (Vincent Cassel) selects her to play the lead in his new version of Swan Lake, Nina accepts the challenge but finds herself being pushed to her limits as her director asks her to combine the innocence of the White Swan with the eroticism and deception of the Black Swan.
As Nina taps into her dark side, fearful of the competition posed by rival ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis), she slowly finds herself being tormented by demons that compel her to take ever more risky decisions in the pursuit of perfection.
Aronofsky’s film is a visually stylish, psychologically taut pot-boiler that frequently blurs the lines between reality and madness. It’s also a clever metaphor for the story of The White Swan itself, daring to parallel Nina’s work on the ballet with her own life.
And if that sounds complicated, part of the pleasure in watching the film lies in seeing how he achieves this daring double act.
But pull it off he does, creating an atmospheric, dizzying, visually stylish and chilling thriller that thrives on both the unique setting and the strength of its central performances.
Portman is electrifying in the central role, perfectly embodying innocence and insecurity and then mixing it slowly with darkness and awakened desire. It’s an eye-opening role for her, which she throws herself into: physically and mentally.
But Cassel is great, too, as her charismatic and manipulative artistic director, and there’s also good work from Kunis and Hershey.
Aronofsky also makes the most of his backdrop, providing a unique, fascinating and often painful insight into the world of ballet and the lengths to which its performers will go to seek perfection.
In that sense, there are parallels with his work on The Wrestler, especially in the way he shows us just how much artists put their physicality and bodies at risk for their craft.
But there are also nods to the likes of Hitchcock in the way he uses doubles and builds the tension to sometimes disorientating effect, culminating in a tour-de-force ballet sequence in which Nina really comes into her own.
It’s a dazzling finale that packs a powerful emotional punch and which elevates Black Swan to one of the most striking films you’re likely to see in a long time.
Running time: 105mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: May 16, 2011
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Natalie Portman interview
- Darren Aronofsky interview
- Black Swan Photo Gallery
- Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel interview
- Black Swan Premiere Photo Gallery