Black Swan movie review

27 January 2011

Written by: Renee Tibbs

The concept of good and evil can sometimes be seen as very black and white. In most cases, however, that line is blurred and there are many shades of grey. Good and evil are rudimentary opposites that can inhabit a person simultaneously. This notion of dualism is dissected brilliantly in Darren Aronofsky’s latest masterpiece, Black Swan.

Set in the world of a New York ballet company, the film tells the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dedicated dancer. She is a perfectionist, training for hours on end. After auditions for the company’s new production of Swan Lake, Nina is announced as the Swan Queen, a role consisting of both a virginal White Swan, and a dark, seducing Black Swan. With pressures mounting, Nina becomes involved with the ballet company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) and strikes up a strange relationship with fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis). As the film progresses, Nina suffers a meltdown, unable to find the equilibrium between the two roles. Like vintage Aronofsky (Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler), fantasy and reality combine with unnerving, resplendent effect.

Recently I viewed the classical ballet films The Red Shoes (1942) and The Turning Point (1977). Both have stood the test of time. The films capture the idea of creative sacrifice. Choice between career and a person life is just that in these two films: a choice. Both are not possible, and as seen in The Turning Point, regrets occur no matter what the choice. Black Swan similarly displays the taxing effect that ballet has over a personal life. As a dancer, Nina is a perfectionist and mainly keeps to herself, having only her mother as a friend (ringing a bell, Anthony Perkins fans?). When Nina finally gets closer to Lily, disaster eventually ensues and her work suffers. Nina therefore continues to swim alone in a sea of her own attempts at perfection, and the results are fascinating to watch.

Natalie Portman is this year’s best actress. Winning almost every award possible so far (with the Oscar within her grasp), her performance will go down in history, played with such conviction, talent and vulnerability. The character of Nina is really put to test throughout the film. She is a mess psychologically and decreasingly lean physically. Her yearning is great, and while the audience roots for her from the start, there is the doubt that she is up for the endurance of such a strenuous role. Both Portman and Nina’s dedication to their respective roles sees creative sacrifice played out for all it’s worth.

Nina’s mother Erica is played by the brilliant Barbara Hershey. This seems to be the year of the disturbed mother in film. Hershey’s Erica is no exception, and thankfully she is played with a multitude of layers, rather than as a cliché. Congratulations are in order for Hershey, who just received a Best Supporting Actress nomination from BAFTA.

Mila Kunis knocks the ball right out of the park with her performance as the driven, talented Lily. Both Portman and Kunis had extensive dance training for their roles, and it pays off in droves. Both are beyond convincing as members of a New York ballet company. Playing a character that seems to resemble the Black Swan, Kunis seduces all around her, especially Thomas and Nina.

Vincent Cassel provides the antagonist with ease, revealing a disturbing man without real concern of the insanity he creates in his dancers. Winona Ryder also gets a chance to play a fading star, with some equally disturbing horror hospital themes.

Twin and doppelganger imagery is brought to life by Aronofsky in a hybrid of psychological thriller, horror, melodrama and dance film. A wonderful story was created by Andres Heinz along with an equally-matched original screenplay written by Mark Heyman, John J. McLaughlin and Heinz, all three whom have very little film credits to date. Oscar-worthy direction from Aronofsky, sublime cinematography by Matthew Libatique, a terrific score from Clint Mansell, along with astounding performances see Black Swan as my pic of this awards season and an instant classic. The film stayed with me for weeks, and it took a couple of hours to come back down to earth after viewing this work of genius. See this film – you won’t be disappointed.

James Madden is undertaking a Master of Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne. He also blogs at Film Blerg, where this review was originally published.