Black Swan Review

An Oscar-nominated descent in to horror, paranoia and madness – who knew ballet could be so gripping?

The battle for a soul is at the heart of Black Swan, a dark journey in to a tormented mind pushed to breaking point. Darren Aronofsky’s companion piece to The Wrestler plays something like a David Cronenberg-directed remake of The Red Shoes; but those expecting a modern day updating of Powell and Pressburger’s Technicolor masterpiece should not apply. Awash with scenes of sex and body horror, and yet at its core an old-fashioned psychological melodrama, Black Swan is a curious hybrid of art house chic and multiplex shocks. Instead of falling between the two stools however, Aronofksky appears to have won over both cinema crowds by simply delivering an intelligent, well-executed adult thriller that knows exactly when to indulge in excess and when to hold back.

Natalie Portman, hardly ever off-screen, delivers a career-defining performance in a role surely made for her. She might not be the most versatile actress in Hollywood, but Portman has a porcelain beauty and fragility perfectly suited to the role of Nina, one of the more talented dancers in a New York ballet company and desperate to snag the newly vacant lead in the company’s forthcoming production of Swan Lake. The role requires the performer to play two characters: the innocent and graceful White Swan (actually a Princess cursed by an evil sorcerer’s spell); and the sensual and seductive Black Swan, in reality the sorcerer’s daughter magically transformed to look like the Princess in order to ensnare an eligible Prince. The virginal Nina impresses the company’s rather more liberated artistic director Thomas (a purring Vincent Cassel), who finds Nina’s performance as the White Swan faultless, but has doubts as to her ability to become the sinful Black Swan.

This sends Nina on an inward journey to discover and embrace her darker side, a journey that begins to affect her mind and outwardly manifests itself in changes to her body and personality. Aronofsky pulls a few good shocks out of his hat – moments where strangers suddenly turn in to Nina, and then her reflection in mirrors not doing what it ought to do. As she practices harder and harder, her injuries start to become bloodier and more bizarre – cracked toenails are only the beginning. There were quite a few moments which made this reviewer grimace; Lord only knows what the senior citizen crowd will make of it, should they be lulled in to going by murmurs of awards and a story based on Tchaikovsky’s enduring classic. And that’s before we’ve even got to the self-mutilation and lesbian sex.

Nina’s childlike existence at home with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), surrounded and protected by cuddly toys and musical boxes, begins to fall apart as her exploration and transformation intensifies. Hershey is all smiles and silent threats as the mother who was once a dancer herself and now lives through her daughter. Nina’s unnaturally extended youth and sexual innocence quickly withers away with the arrival in the company of the outgoing Lily (Mila Kunis). Confident, grown-up and carefree, she is Nina’s very own Black Swan. Paranoia creeps in to Nina’s mind; does Lily really want to take her place as lead ballerina? After a boozy night out, the two uneasy companions spend the night together – but the next morning Lily denies it ever happened. Who should the audience believe? Can we be certain of anything we see onscreen? Adding to the weight of fear and suspicion bearing down on Nina is the fate of her predecessor Beth (Winona Ryder), booted out by Thomas for being too old and hospitalised after an accident. Is that the future that awaits her?

Black Swan may be a gripping descent in to madness, but like The Wrestler, it is also, in a strange way, a tribute to the passion and commitment of those who put their heart and soul in to their art, going to the ultimate extremes to give the audience – and themselves – what they want. Nina’s transformation terrifies her, yet it is also the very thing she desires in order to achieve perfection. It might not be a masterpiece, but it is a potent mix of beauty, passion and horror, as well as being a damn good slice of pure cinema.

Gavin Midgley

Updated: Jan 29, 2011

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