Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Black Swan [Review]

To me, Natalie Portman is Padmé Amidala. The whiny Queen-before-her-time wife of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, she always represented that which I hated about the resurgence of the saga: the demystification of one of the greatest villains of all time, Darth Vader. No more was he the symbolism of pure evil who found redemption for his sins (by throwing his master down a two hundred and fifty thousand feet shaft directly into the core of the second Death Star).

No, now he was the whiny child, the hopelessly emotional teenager and the arrogant pilot with powers that certainly wouldn’t cause any suspension of disbelief. All this circled around Portman’s character - yes, Star Wars had become a love story. Admittedly the original trilogy had the Han/Leia thing going on, but it wasn’t central to the ongoing fight between good and evil. For me, Portman’s character epitomised all that was wrong with the Star Wars prequels. She was, and always would be, Amidala, that which tore apart a classic saga bit by bit at the hands of George Lucas. Until Black Swan.

To say she’s come a long way in the past six or so years since the last Star Wars film would be a bit of an understatement. Slide The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones into your DVD player (sadly the saga hasn’t yet been released on Blu-ray, though come October this will change) and remind yourself why: Padmé Amidala, effectively a plank of wood with different faces scrawled on. Of course, the writers must take some of the blame; she was never the most well-written character and her role was translucent at best, never quite fully fleshed out as a trigger for Anakin’s turn to the dark side. But Portman was fairly fresh on the acting scene, and wasn’t about to start picking up Oscars any time soon. Come 2011, and she’s back in full form, starting with Black Swan; a tale of a ballerina, but one that you won’t need any liking of dance to enjoy.

The dance, of course, is Swan Lake; Portman’s character, Nina Sayers, the Swan Queen - or so she wishes. Her problem comes in the form of the dual role; the split personality - perfection lies in the White Swan, but Nina struggles to lose herself in the other half of the role, the voluptuous, darkly sensual twin, in the form of the Black Swan. Over the course of the one hundred and eight minutes screen time, Nina’s paranoia of usurpation by her understudy ultimately takes its toll, with hallucinations (both drug-induced or otherwise) and the struggle of attempting to lose herself in the Black Swan leading to an ever-darker psychological spiral, that only falls further down.

Her character is an intriguing one; overshadowed by a controlling mother who attempts to live out her failed dreams through her daughter, Nina’s involuntary self-harming - fuelled by hallucinations, but also whilst unconscious, be it asleep or otherwise - highlights a deep psychological torment; one that only grows with the pressure of the role. Mila Kunis’ character, a cocky, confident Lily, spends the duration of the runtime subtly undermining Nina, for better or worse, as her motives become less and less clear - is she really out to usurp Nina, or is it just Nina’s paranoid frenzy of suspicion that causes us to accuse Lily of such mutiny?

The narrative is no less complex than the characters. Nina’s many hallucinations are infused almost seamlessly with her real-life actions and the events that run through the course of the film, to the extent that the two become blurred over time - and it is no longer clear what is real and what is not. Thus the point of the film: the devolution of Nina’s psyche, and her struggle to comprehend reality against the extent to which the testing role of the Black Swan consumes her whole. And this narrative is supported fantastically by the depth of the characters, and the cast that portrays them with beautiful vigour: Portman takes all that director Darren Aronofsky throws at her, clearly in her stride, while Kunis’ devil-on-the-shoulder is acutely sinister.

The supporting cast are no less seized in the moment; Vincent Cassel as instructor Thomas Leroy is formidable in his role - a man who knows what he wants, and has no hesitancy in seizing it with both hands. So yes, the acting quality, production values and script are all top-notch. But it doesn’t end there. Black Swan’s choreography is matched perfectly with the cinematography of each scene, while the film’s soundtrack is predictably astounding.

An achievement by all involved, Black Swan is no less than a modern masterpiece, and by far the best film of 2011 yet seen by this reviewer - but one that also acts as a fine showcase for the timely blossoming of Natalie Portman into the Oscar-winning actress she has become. It’s a long way from The Phantom Menace.


See also: Shutter Island (2010), Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 108 mins, 21/01/11

Synopsis: Dancer Nina Sayers wins the lead role in Swan Lake, perfect for the delicate White Swan role. However, she slowly succumbs to the demanding role of the Black Swan, almost losing her mind along the way… 


Post a Comment