Who knew “Swan Lake” was rife with thrills, chills, and kills?
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a member of a ballet company in New York City. Her entire life is dedicated to perfecting her art under the watchful eye of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) who gave up her own dreams of dancing to train her daughter (and doesn’t let her forget it.) At the start of a new season, the director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), announces his intent to recreate a classic ballet, “Swan Lake,” in a more dramatic way, starting with a fresh face for the dual role of the White and Black Swan. The perfection and precision of the innocent White Swan has already been mastered by Nina, but what will it cost her to lose herself in the dance to embody the sinister and worldly Black Swan?
Leave it to director Darren Aronofsky to not only tell a twisted tale set in the world of ballet but also present it so that anyone can follow it. After quickly learning Nina’s aspirations and her controlling mother’s hopes for her, Cassel (as Thomas) masterfully gives away the plot but not the details with his announcement of re-thinking the classic ballet “Swan Lake.” To paraphrase, the cursed White Swan discovers a prince who can free her, but the seductive Black Swan steals him away, inspiring the White Swan to find her freedom instead in suicide. With so many ways to translate that into the modern world, all kinds of possibilities open up. You know exactly what’s going to happen, but like any good train wreck, you can’t look away.
In addition to Portman’s exceptional performance as Nina, Mila Kunis portrays Lily, Nina’s frienemy and chief competition Lily (and the inspiration for Nina’s Black Swan.) Kunis delivers a balanced and believable character that keeps you guessing Nina’s state of mind, providing not so much a villain as she does a forewarning. Barbara Hershey is sufficiently smothering as Nina’s mother while Winona Ryder is nearly understated as the exiting ballet star of the company (can’t someone find Ms. Rider a compelling starring role instead of all these bit part cameos?) Vincent Cassel completes the core cast as a visionary yet smarmy director who coaxes incredible performances from his leading ladies with a whispered reputation of taking a little something for himself.
The movie is allegory for the performance of the play in the movie which is itself allegory for the original play. Got all that? Filming a stage play under the guise of a movie about filming a stage play isn’t an original concept (A Chorus Line, anyone?) Black Swan, however, feels more like a well-filmed documentary about a tragedy in progress than a stage play that just happens to be a movie. While this will likely become a favorite film of fans with an unhealthy obsession with Natalie Portman, the performances of the cast under Aronofsky propel this undertaking much higher than would have been possible without.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)