2010 will be remembered as the year Natalie Portman blossomed from a good actress with lots of potential into a great one. Fitting that she did it in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s sensuous and darkly beautiful psycho-sexual fairytale about a young woman’s personal and professional transformation. Revealing surprising new depths to her talent as a ballerina whose lifelong drive toward the top of her craft threatens to destroy her even as she achieves her greatest dream, Portman breathes life into a film that depends on her almost entirely and would come crashing down if she failed.
Her character is Nina Sayers, a talented but innocent young woman/girl whose whole life exists within the pressure cooker of ballet where friends are enemies, the goal is absolute perfection and the window for holding onto it is short lived. She is a remarkable ballerina in technique, but she has little life experience. When she wins the dual good/evil lead roles in a new production of Swan Lake, she must reach within herself to find a passion and an edge that threaten to break her obsessive self-control and send her fragile persona into madness.
Part drama, part thriller and part horror story wrapped in the kind of coming-of-age folk tale fantasy that inspired the ballet at its core, Black Swan is difficult to categorize and might not have worked without Portman’s powerful central performance. Even putting aside the reported weight loss and months of difficult dance training, she is remarkable. She seizes each subtle shift in Nina’s arc with complete confidence; finessing the audience along on a sometimes bumpy and credulity-pushing ride to a very satisfying end.
As great as Portman is, it takes Black Swan a long time to develop and for an hour or so it seems like it might not ever take flight. In laying the groundwork for his fractured personality story, Aronofsky leans a little too hard on bluntly obvious visual metaphors so that the themes of duality, doppelgangers and good vs. evil hang within easy reach. They’d have been more rewarding had they been harder earned, but the director still does a nice job of ratcheting up the tension and the looming undertones of horror. When the story reaches its climax during the final remarkable 20-minute dance sequence, it’s a thrilling and satisfying catharsis to all that has come before.
Even in the weaker opening half of the film, Portman is fantastic. She perfectly conveys the virginal, semi-stunted naivety of a young woman who has been forced (or perhaps chooses) to remain something of a little girl. As she eventually taps the darkness within her, she captures the frightened sexual panic and vulnerability of a woman’s dawning maturity. Her character is a microcosm of femininity twisted, compressed and made nearly grotesque by the intensity of her life as a dancer.
When the final crescendo comes, it’s no less exhilarating for being expected. With a sudden burst of confidence, power and arousal that are equal measures intoxicating and frightening, Portman transforms her character, the film and herself in a glorious onscreen moment that leaves you buzzing long after the credits roll. It’s the kind of scene that movies and careers are made of and Portman owns it.
As amazing as she is, and she really does lift her craft to a level she’d previously only hinted at, the rest of the cast does a fantastic job of supporting and counterpointing her. Not coincidentally, each of the female characters is physically similar to Nina. They’re not duplicates, but variations on a petite, dark-haired theme. They’re each aspects of Nina’s own morphing personality and they’re seen as friends or foes depending almost entirely on Nina’s own state of mind.
Mila Kunis is Lily, Nina’s dark twin/competitor. She’s a sexier and more intuitive dancer but also less disciplined. Is she a threat for being everything Lily isn’t or is she an ally? Kunis remains enigmatically both and only shows her cards when the story finally reveals itself. Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s controlling/protective mother as a woman who drives her daughter to success while also perhaps harboring a bit of jealousy that the same has eluded her. Winona Ryder is Beth, the fading prima ballerina whom Nina replaces. Beth’s tragedy is that she’s still young, but not young enough and her spotlight has unceremoniously flickered out. She’s a cold reminder of what awaits Nina even if she manages to achieve the success she’s trained her whole life for. In the role, Ryder shows a darkness and an edge we haven’t seen from her very often.
Technically, Black Swan is gorgeous. All pinks and grays and blacks and whites, the clean production design and Matthew Libatique’s photography compliment Clint Mansell’s elegant piano score. Together they form a beautifully simple backdrop across which the complex and intense emotions play out on screen. Finally, a special note should be made of the nifty black swan effects that are used judiciously throughout the film. They bridge the gap between the realistic and the fantastic and help position the whole story in an unsettling other-world.
In the end, Black Swan is a solid film elevated by a marvelous Natalie Portman performance. A bit more restraint and subtlety on Aronofsky’s part and it might have been sublime, but Portman and the finale make it a knock out either way. Gripping, scary, sexy and ultimately very moving, it’s the rare film that throws expectation and genre constraints aside to aim for lasting greatness. It doesn’t quite get there, but Portman does and it’s something to see.
Black Swan. USA 2010. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin from a screen story by Andres Heinz. Cinematography by Matthew J. Libatique. Music score by Clint Mansell with music supervision/direction by Jim Black and Gabe Hilfer. Edited by Andrew Weislub. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder. 1 hour 48 minutes. MPAA rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use. 4 stars (out of 5)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Andres Heinz, Andrew Weislub, Barbara Hershey, Black Swan, Clint Mansell, Darren Aronofsky, Gabe Hilfer, Jim Black, John McLaughlin, Mark Heyman, Matthew J. Libatique, Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder