Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, a psychological thriller set in the world of ballet, has made the nominations lists for all of the big awards announced so far, and its lead, Natalie Portman won the best actress Golden Globe. We expect the film to appear on the list of Oscar nominees next month too, says Emma Rowley.
This review was originally published as part of our Venice Film Festival coverage in September. It is being republished now to tie-in with the movie's UK theatrical release.
Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to The Wrestler is as visceral, violent and psychologically unflinching as his cinematic tale about a washed-up fighter. It's a film about the dark side of artistry and ambition that sees Aronofsky reaching new heights of storytelling. Both films explore the minds of characters whose drive to perform is coupled with (or powered by) a fiercely damaging self-destructive streak. But whereas The Wrestler was a realist drama that dipped occasionally into the soapy trough of troubled relationships, Black Swan is a taut thriller, pared down and entirely filtered through the distorted lens of its protagonist's perception.
While Aronofsky has explicitly noted the relationship between the two films, describing Black Swan as a companion piece to The Wrestler, fans of the director's work will note similarities to another of his pictures, Requiem For A Dream. Specifically the skillful manner in which he draws his audience into the nightmarish misreadings of paranoia. In Requiem, his characters' mental states were horribly altered by their relationships with drugs. In Black Swan it is a single-minded pursuit of perfection that warps his protagonist.
The film's look is dazzling. Aronofsky conjures up a decadent world of reflections, shadows, ghosts and doppelgangers that mirrors the doubts and paranoias of Nina, an anxious, ambitious dancer whose entire life belongs to her ballet company. She has spent four years in the corps honing her technique to flawlessness when the director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), decides it is time for his current lead dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder) to retire. The company is in financial trouble and he is convinced that an emotional, raw reinterpretation of Swan Lake, fronted by a new star dancer, is the way to bring in the crowds. Nina is among those selected to audition for the lead and Thomas tells her that he would cast her instantly if she were only required to play the virginal white swan. But her performance is not passionate enough to convince in the other half of the dual role: the wicked, seductive black swan.
Thomas, who she trusts implicitly, insists she cannot succeed using technique alone. So Nina meets this opportunity as she does every other: by immersing herself in the role completely, using her anxiety to propel herself on. She must engage with the side of herself that she has until this stage starved as a useless encumbrance. As it emerges, Nina exists in a state of arrested development. At 28, she lives in an apartment with her mother Erica (a compelling Barbara Hershey), who helps her dress and undress and puts her to bed at night in her little girl's bedroom, surrounded by plush animals, and winds her ballerina music box to lull her to sleep.
As Nina begins to confront her failures and rewrite her personality, she is assaulted by a sense of another self stalking her. At the same time a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), joins the company. Nina sees her as the perfect representation of the black swan whose effortless sensuality she cannot master through discipline alone.
It's impossible to imagine Black Swan with a lead other than Natalie Portman. Her performance is exquisitely detailed and convincing, each emotional change her character undergoes registering in her expression. It is certainly a performance that will garner Portman awards: she must surely be noticed by the Oscars committee. The rest of the cast deliver excellent support, particularly Cassel as the wily and manipulative Thomas, but it's Portman's film entirely.
On the subject of awards, it is also likely that Aronofsky will be Oscar nominated for his work here: the creation of a modern, though timeless, fable that enchants and fascinates. Even though it's only September, Black Swan is easily one of the best films of the year.
Rating on a scale of 5 black feathers: 5
Release date: US = 3 December; UK = Out now
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay by: Mark Heyman and Andrs Heinz
Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Cert: US = R; UK = 15
Running time: 103 minutes