Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell, Winona Ryder
There aren't many films that open with a 10 minute classical dance sequence. It's an audacious move, one that sets the tone for a bold and operatic outing from director Darren Aronofsky. A modern update of the Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, it's a steaming psychological thriller with more than a touch of the theatrical. And it storms the stage right up to the final curtain.
Nina (Portman) is a dedicated dancer, a girl committed to her company - and its lascivious leader, Thomas (Cassell). She dreams of the chance to replace prima ballerina Beth (Ryder), and soon gets the chance when the alcoholic old performer does a Bette Davis and turns up in hospital with self-inflicted injuries. Securing the coveted role of the Swan Queen, Nina embodies the White Swan in its delicate innocence, but needs a bit of groping to get to grips with the darker side of her character, the Black Swan.
Challenged and undermined by newcomer Lily (Kunis), a girl who freewheels more than she warms up, Nina soon loses herself in the part. Completely. Descending into madness most fowl, her flight from sanity to All About Eve-like intensity is fascinating to watch - Portman's presence is both fragile and fractured, dominating the screen with one of the classiest breakdowns you could ever experience.
As the seductive antagonist, Mila Kunis provides sensual support for Portman's princess, a dark and twisted mirror for the prim and proper mummy's girl. Cleverly made-up to highlight their similarities in appearance, the two blend together in a heady sequence that races from a red-lit rave to a blurry bedroom. And on the boundary between black and white, Vincent Cassell patrols the juxtaposition, decked in tones of grey and oozing ominous authority.
Shot with a fierce immediacy by Aronofsky, the seamless switch to grainy handheld keeps the screen pounding with energy. Deftly choreographing the quiet moments of mental confusion, he works up a frenzy of artistic chaos, finding unsettling details in everyday items from tattoos to train windows. It's a superb demonstration of his skill, combined with Clint Mansell's note-perfect play upon Tchaikovsky's original score.
Effortless and unbalanced, Black Swan is a melodrama that feels overwrought but never turgid. It’s the film that Shutter Island wanted to be. A complex take on one of theatre's most difficult characters, it turns a girl into a monster and ballet into film; a mesmerising piece of transformation that mixes blood and sweat with high art and never trips up. As the dizzying journey climaxes with a theatrical flourish, the final reach for perfection leaves the screen fading out to resounding applause.