Black Swan


Reviewed by: James Benefield

Black Swan
"As elegant and overblown as ballet itself."

Ballet horror/drama/psychosexual thriller Black Swan revels and positively gets off on a highly pleasing central paradox – it's as elegant and overblown as ballet itself.

We follow socially awkward, repressed ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) competing for a much-coveted leading role in a New York ballet's new production of Swan Lake. Between deliberately – physically - hurting herself and being berated by her harridan mother, Barbara Hershey's Erica, Nina manages to stave off competition from outgoing ballet queen Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) and new girl on the block Lily (Mila Kunis) to the role.

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However, when her wish comes true, she gets more than she bargained for. This is not least from the production's director Vincent Cassell's Thomas Leroy, a notoriously manipulative womaniser. Yet it's more than that - the role proves the trigger for her unravelling. Nina believes she is being targeted by jealous dancers, increases in her self-harming and, strangely of all, believes she is physically transforming. But is this all in her head?

From the opening sequence in which fragile-looking Nina is starkly lit on an empty stage, only to be assaulted by a fellow, rather terrifying, dancer (or, possibly, monster?), you know this ain't going to be The Red Shoes. While Powell and Pressburger's dance sequences were shown in stately long-shot, Aronofsky gets right in there in agonising close up, revealing the painful physical hardships, bitchy hair-pulling and bitter-sweet emotional consequences of fame.

It's also, quite possibly a horror film playing inside its central character's head. As Nina's fantasy of becoming a ballet leading lady comes true, things get all Cronenbergian. Nina believes she may be turning into a swan – she is getting marks on her back, and sees bumps on her skin. She also has to confront her repressed nature. Half of her role is to take on the character of the black swan – the more sexual, seductive part she will have ever played. This leads her through a whole host of new experiences – from the titillating to the terrifying.

Ambitious then, but director Aronosky isn't one known to shy away from extremes. And the movie follows through its theatricality in its off-stage antics. Shock and awe is shot through the movie like a message in a stick of seaside rock. Most satisfyingly, the ending neither confirms nor denies the ongoing discussion between fantasy and reality.

Aronofsky has encouraged the actors too – and gets the boldest performance from Natalie Portman since her debut in Leon. Winona Ryder is also strangely energised – and she scores a number of highly memorable scenes in the movie. But the revelation here is Barbara Hershey – Hershey has been on and off the screen for a while, but here she reminds us of why she raised eyebrows in eighties movies like Beaches. In many ways, her wide-eyed portrayal of a suffocating parent is similar to Piper Laurie's mother role in Carrie – surely the epitome of control-freak matriarchy.

If audiences can deal with the outrageous plot developments, the hyper-real tone and the unsettling beauty, Black Swan may well prove the calling card for the best director of a generation. It's incredibly accomplished stuff.

Reviewed on: 23 Oct 2010
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A psychological thriller set in the world of the New York City ballet.
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Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writer: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin

Starring: Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Barbara Hershey, Ksenia Solo, Toby Hemingway, Kristina Anapau, Christopher Gartin, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Adriene Couvillion, Deborah Offner, Shaun O'Hagan

Year: 2010

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US


London 2010

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If you like this, try:

The Red Shoes