Ballet lovers beware: anyone expecting a nice, cosy update of The Red Shoes is in for a rude awakening. Darren Aronofsky’s tale of creeping madness and horny prima donnas plays more like a David Cronenberg version of All About Eve.
Conceived as a sister piece to The Wrestler, it too centres on a fragile soul whose life is based on performance and makes similarly gruelling physical and dramatic demands of its lead player.
And like Mickey Rourke before her, Natalie Portman doesn’t put a foot wrong as Nina, a New York ballerina whose technical strengths are tempered by emotional fragility.
Living with a highly strung, passive-repressive mother (Barbara Hershey) doesn’t help. Nevertheless, the company’s manipulative artistic director Thomas (Cassel) selects Nina to play the Swan Queen in his new take on Swan Lake, forcing ageing star Beth (Ryder) into retirement.
Unhappy at being the source of resentment, Nina feels further undermined by the arrival of confident new girl Lily (The Book Of Eli’s Kunis). But just because she’s paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get her.
Moreover, while she perfectly embodies her character’s ‘white’ half, to successfully play the evil Black Swan, Nina must find and explore her wild and dark side. And boy, does she ever.
With the stage set for symbolism, Aronofsky lets the metaphors rip. As Nina literally bleeds for her art, her mental slide is strewn with broken bodies, broken psyches, mirrors to the soul, and the finding of emotional wings through sexual liberation (steady on though, tigers - the much vaunted girl-on-girl scenes keep all no-nudity clauses intact).
Consequently, it's not the most subtle study of mental breakdown. Nor is it the most original. As well as the Cronenberg factor, there’s a strong whiff of Fight Club and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion about it. And, despite solid performances, Cassel’s theatrical tyrant is a tired cliché and Hershey is essentially Stephen King’s Carrie’s mum resurrected.
But otherwise, nobody could accuse Black Swan of not sticking its creative neck out.
While Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s near-documentary style keeps the drama up close and personal, they also work seamlessly with the effects team to create an impressively unsettling sub-reality.
With Portman’s dance moves as convincing as her descent into derangement and Kunis also hitting a career high as her minxy opposite, here’s a trip to the ballet that won't fail to sort the men from the boys.