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Review: Black Swan

17th January 2011

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The film of the year is here! At least it was when we saw a preview back in December. Now there’s a whole new year to go, but this one will definitely stick with you by the time you make your ‘Best of 2011’ lists, and it will no doubt be receiving several plaudits, nominations and the odd golden statue in the upcoming awards season.

Natalie PortmanDarren Aronofsky’s Black Swan tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a New York ballet dancer who has lived a sheltered life in pursuit of perfection in dance. Now she is given the opportunity of a lifetime to play the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake, but the fragile, innocent Nina has to discover her dark side to embody the part of the Black Swan. Facing competition from the sensual new dancer in town (Mila Kunis), and under pressure from her artistic director (Vincent Cassel), her mother (Barbara Hershey) and herself, she finds the role taking her over as her mind begins to crack and fantasy and reality begin to merge.

There’s a theme that runs through all of Aronofsky’s work to date: obsession. With Black Swan he at once bridges the gap between the considered human drama of The Wrestler and the unsettling mindf**k of Requiem For A Dream, while taking the theme off on brand new tangents and representations that are no less moving or disturbing.

It’s no coincidence that the film is set in the world of ballet: never was an art form more suited to a tale of a gossamer thin veil of perfection pulling back to reveal a dark heart beating below the surface. All those graceful moves, the plies and lifts, belie the strain necessary to make them so – maximum effort in order to look effortless. Within the pointe shoes sit broken toes; raw, gnarled and ugly from a lifetime of unnatural use. Aronofsky puts this all in front of the camera, and allows us to draw parallels between this and the mental state of lead character Nina.

It’s a career best performance from Portman, whose obvious mental and physical preparation alone is highly commendable. Nina is naïve, delicate, but obsessed with perfection. Her porcelain veneer is in constant danger of slipping as she struggles to keep it together and fake her way through, just to please artistic director Leroy or her overbearing mother, but as the screws tighten the cracks begin to show. What in more ham-fisted hands would have had Portman simply turn into a “bad girl” to win the part is enlivened through Aronofsky’s staple of ever-present paranoid unease, as Nina’s metamorphoses into the Black Swan is resisted at every turn, yet inevitable, and ultimately proves her undoing. It most easily draws comparisons with Cronenberg’s The Fly, and is arguably more twisted, cerebral and disconcerting (And if you didn’t have a thing about fingernails after that film, you definitely will now).

The performances are outstanding across the board, from Kunis’ sexy, free-living, possibly bi-curious Lily to Cassel’s Alpha Male walking hard-on Leroy, to a perfectly cast Winona Ryder as the former lead dancer ousted in favour of younger blood. Extra attention, though, should go to Barbara Hershey’s portrayal of Nina’s mother; the relationship between the two played with a subtlety that hints at deep, deep layers of parental pressure, control, obsession, abuse, vicarious living and ultimately resentment, that slowly peel away but are never fully revealed.

It’s just another point of Aronfsky’s construction of interweaving parallels throughout, perfectly paced from slow burn opening ramping up to shock-inducing paranoid tension by the end, and as things become more and more crazy, they become exponentially more compelling. What Portman’s character strives for throughout Aronofsky has achieved with this film: perfection.

Black Swan is released on 21st January

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