Given a choice, it’s always better to go in to a movie with little in the way of prior knowledge or expectations. Knowledge fuels disappointment. Expectations have a habit of being dashed. Sometimes, though, UK release dates and Oscar / BAFTA schedules conspire and like it or not, you find yourself settling down to a film that you know has a barrow load of nominations. Surely it must be pretty good? I mean these are the Oscars we’re talking about. These are the BAFTAs.

In short, yes. It is pretty good. Phew!

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina who is committed and talented enough to achieve a mechanical perfection but lacks passion and spontaneity. When she lands the role of the Swan Queen in a new production, everyone agrees she’s perfect for the White Swan, but she must tap into these hidden qualities for the role’s alter ego, the titular Black Swan.

It’s clear from early doors that all is far from well in Nina’s life. Sexually repressed, self-harming and in her twenties, she lives at home with a domineering and potentially abusive mother (Barbara Hershey with craziness cranked up to the max), amother who lives vicariously through her success yet seems oddly comfortable in playing the same successes down. Vincent Cassel (Irreversible) plays the stereotypical grumpy / sleazy director who urges Nina to let go of herself to find the emotion she needs to achieve greatness. On top of this comes the arrival of a rival dancer (Mila Kunis) whose free-spirit seems to epitomise the mood of the Black Swan. As the film progresses, we become aware that the cost of these pressures and of Nina tapping into this repressed side of her psychological make-up is her sanity and to succeed in “losing herself” will result in precisely that.

Portman truly earns her Best Actress nomination and it’s hard to imagine her not picking up a haul of gongs but it’s a very unsettling performance. Hardly surprising given that we’re watching someone in mental decline and the desperation and panic she brings to the role is haunting to say the very least.

Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) somewhat relies on contrasts throughout the film, perhaps a little too easily at times, but visually it remains an intense, exciting and exhausting 108 mins and oddly enough, a lot of that has to do with the ballet sequences. There’s a lot of ballet in it. An awful lot. But for someone who has never sat through an entire production or had much in the way of interest, it’s done in such a way that it’s quite a visceral medium. Perhaps all ballet is like this, but it came as a surprise to find those sequences so engaging and moving when the expectation was firmly on the other end of the spectrum.

Special mention goes to Winona Ryder who is fantastic as the bitter, pushed-out, slightly over-the-hill, former star and features in perhaps the pick of the many wince-inducing disturbing scenes. Those with nail and feet and stabby thing phobias should take special care.

I’d be hugely surprised if Black Swan picks up Best Movie or Best Director — there were better movies, better directed in 2010 — but it’s a uniquely disturbing experience and if anyone has any doubts over the emotional effects of classical music, certainly in recent history, there’s surely no better advertisement.

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