Natalie Portman swims into dark waters in ‘Black Swan’
If Girl Interrupted bitchslapped The Turning Point, the aftermath would resemble something like Black Swan. This psychological thriller, set in the competitive world of the New York City Ballet is haunting and hypnotic yet graceful and raw in the way it unfolds, layer by fascinating layer, into a gripping tale that explores the lines between reality and perception. It’s one of the best films of the year and its star, Natalie Portman, delivers a career-defining role that could win her an Oscar. (The star and the film just nabbed Golden Globe noms.)
Portman plays Nina, a featured dancer—protective layer on the outside, completely frail on the inside—in a prominent ballet company. She’s worked hard over the years and her dreams of being moved into center spotlight finally become realized when the company’s alpha male director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) opts to re-imagine the classic “Swan Lake.”
He casts lovely Nina in the starring role as the duplicitous swan queen. He commends her ability to morph into an innocent white swan in the production, but prods her to completely “let go” of her inhibitions so that she can also fully embody the darker nuances of the show’s passionate black swan.
Careful what you ask for.
Yes, Nina consumes herself in the process, but she can’t seem to let go. She doesn’t know how to. In fact, it’s probably the most frightening thing she could ever do. And her frustration with herself only further fuels a fierce drive to be perfect. Worse, it slowly begins to make Nina question what may be happening around her.
Enter the company’s new gal, Lily (Mila Kunis). Whether she wants to or not, free-spirited Lily is a major button-pusher for Nina—her moods swing; her self-esteem plummets. She fears that liberated Lily wants her role. Is it real? Imagined? We don’t really know—yet.
But we’re offered glimpses into why Nina would question her fate in the form of Beth (Winona Ryder). Once the company’s shining star, Beth has been forced into retirement by Thomas, a decision that sends the woman, personal demons and all, unraveling into a confused mess. Could this also happen to Nina too, in time?
It doesn’t help that Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey in a standout role) keeps Nina “protected” at home. Here, Nina is doted upon, seemingly kept in a kind of emotional confinement, never really allowed to mature psychologically.
Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) so masterfully handles the wildly inventive script written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin. The film, much like Aronofsky’s Wrestler, is shot in grainy overtones, as if to make note of the inner grittiness of the film’s characters. The movie unfolds much like the dramatic ballet within it,with cresdendos and decrescendos, breathlessly reaching one emotional peak in one stroke, and falling desperately on another. Watch for how well these filmmakers build on suspense, scene after scene. You feel Nina’s inner turmoil. You’re frightened for her. You’re interested in her journey.
Better still, you’re invested in the outcome.
The interaction between Hershey and Portman is flawlessly executed—these two have such a rich sandbox full of inner demons to play around in. Cassel and Kunis—even Ryder—are believable in the skins they’ve been asked to embody here. And Portman captures the emotional intricacies of her character—so forlorn, so pressured, so craving for approval—to such profoundly exceptional ends that you loose yourself in the performance.
Few films this year have so wickedly captured the twisted undercurrents that rush through our mind and emotions, and the great leaps we allow ourselves to take in order to get what we think we want. From its first fade-in to its mindbending end note, Black Swan is a remarkable triumph.
★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder. Written by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky. A Fox Searchlight Release.