Black Swan, 2010.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder.
A sophisticated psychological thriller set in the milieu of the New York Ballet.
Darren Aronofsky has carved out a career as an inventive and interesting director making films such as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler. His fifth feature, Black Swan, is a film that keeps with the trend of his impressive filmography.
The film centres on Nina (a very impressive Natalie Portman), a perfectionist ballet dancer who is going for the lead role in Swan Lake. Nina is a very sweet and pure girl. Dedicated to her art, she steers clear of the bitching sessions the other dancers regularly participate in. She also has a controlling mother (Barbara Hershey) who even assists her when she is getting dressed. Nina’s pink bedroom is akin to that of a boy band loving teenager - without the posters.
The lead role in Swan Lake requires the dancer to be both the White and Black Swans. Nina’s near perfect technical ability and grace make her an ideal candidate to represent the White Swan, but her inability to let go and embrace the darker Black Swan makes the artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) have his doubts. And then a rival presents her own case - Lily (played by Mila Kunis). The battle Nina faces with Lily, and also with herself, stirs intrigue and in typical Aronofsky fashion the psychological drama has you hanging on to every frame that is on the screen in front of you.
At first Lily doesn’t show her threat. She invites Nina on a night out, which she isn’t keen on but reluctantly goes out to get away from her over protective mother. Nina uncharacteristically goes overboard whilst the girls are clubbing and wakes up hungover the next day. When she arrives late at rehearsals having already been given the lead role in the production she finds Lily has taken her place, leading Thomas to reconsider his choice.
Throughout the film mysterious cuts appear on Nina’s back and hands, perhaps signaling that in order to fully embrace the role of the Black Swan she will have to alter her natural dancing personality. As the competition between Nina and Lily heats up the psychological tension is masterfully cranked up by the daring director, scenes that make the audience jerk in shock yet applaud the craft in equal measure.
The mental downfall of Nina is excruciating to watch at times such is the delivery of Portman’s performance, but at the same time it is unmissable. This is summed up perfectly when her mother asks Nina “what happened to my sweet girl?” and she defiantly replies “she’s gone.”
Although the main focus of the story is on the tension Nina suffers, the ballet is in no means left out in the cold. Dancing sequences, both performances and rehearsals, are beautifully shot. The culture and passion that surrounds the art is portrayed in a stylish manner, and although the film looks fantastic it is Natalie Portman’s staggering performance as Nina that will no doubt draw many plaudits. Perhaps this year Aronofsky will have got an Oscar-winning performance from one of his actors.
Portman convinces with her portrayal of both sides of Nina. First she is utterly believable as the innocent dedicated dancer who steers clear of trouble and works hard to achieve her goals. Then when she has to shine as the darker swan she gradually sheds her incorruptibility and a new passion and determination becomes the centre point of her character’s personality. Of course one performance doesn’t make a film, and there are equally strong performances from Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis as the other two key figures in the story.
Unblemished performances from the cast and an intriguing narrative are clear positives from Black Swan. But not only that, Aronofsky has proved yet again that he has the ability to create beautiful and passionate films without fault. His career keeps going from strength to strength and it is no surprise he has been linked with several high profile film projects of late. I don’t think it will be long before Portman is given regular leading roles and this film could may well win several Oscars come February 2011.
Jon Dudley is a freelance film and television journalist and his 17-minute short film Justification was shown at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
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