Review: ‘Black Swan’-Natalie Portman can act a little

30 01 2011

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, the White Swan in "Black Swan"

Darren Aronofsky delivers a wild psychological thriller that comes pretty close to becoming a straight up horror flick. Oh, and Natalie Portman acts a little, in case you haven’t heard. Full review after the jump…

The Details

Black Swan (2010, 108 minutes, rated R)

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky (see also: The Wrestler (2008), The Fountain (2006), and Requiem for a Dream (2000))

Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin

Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey

The Review:

Black Swan is a fascinating film. It stars Natalie Portman (who does all of her own dancing) as Nina a member of a prestigious New York City ballet company. A new dance season is about to begin and with it comes a new production of a classic, Swan Lake, lead by the companies director Thomas Leroy (played by Vincent Cassel). Nina is competing for the lead role in the show, that of the White Swan. Nina’s technically perfect dancing makes her a great fit for the White Swan, but the role requires her to also play the Black Swan. Leroy is reluctant to cast her here because she is Black Swan requires a dancer with more emotion and passion, something Nina seems to lack. Then comes Lily (Mila Kunis), the new addition to the company who has a sloppier and less disciplined technique, but an incredible passion that makes her perfect for the Black Swan side of the lead role. The movie focuses on Nina as she struggles to compete against Lily, win over the director, and attempt to please her overbearing stage mother Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey). Nina drives herself mad in her extreme devotion to her role and her art.

Aronofsky is completely in control in his film. He directs with confidence from start to finish. But what I love about his direction here is that it is never in your face, yeah there are some flashier bits that seem like they belong more in a horror film, but it is his subtle touches that really drive the film and bring everything together. The movie is about Nina and the story is told from her perspective. We see a young woman push herself to the limit for her art and we watch as she slowly falls into paranoia and insanity over this part. I’ll get to Natalie Portman’s performance later, but here is where Aranofsky does some really interesting stuff. He’s very much in control of the camera, keeping away from lots of quick cuts in favor of longer shots that build tension and restrict the audience’s view. Almost any time in the movie when Nina is walking somewhere the camera stays directly behind her and follows her, as if she is being stalked by something unknown. Nina feels trapped, feeling pressure from all sides, her mother, her director, and herself, and Aranofsky builds this great feeling of tension and restriction throughout the film. He also has gone a long way to really set the tone of this film. It’s almost an organic, quasi-documentary experience. Everything is meant to feel real and natural; the camera is sloppy at times (but never by accident). It is a visceral experience as we watch her train and practice her dances, we can hear every joint crack and she spins and we can almost feel the pain in her ankle when she makes a bad move. It’s not always a fun experience but you can never take your eyes off this one. Aranofsky is at the top of his game and it absolutely deserving of his Best Director Oscar nomination from early this week.

And then there’s Natalie Portman, if you’ve heard anything about this movie then you know how good she is, what more can I say? Yeah, she’s fantastic, she’s a beast at acting. Portman plays every note just right; there’s the girl who is suffocating under all the pressure, the precision perfect dancer, the crazed performer, all of it perfect. But what is really great about this performance is that she’s natural and subtle about it. In lesser hands Nina is a character that could easily go over the top with craziness, over the top with depression, or sensuality. But she plays just enough of each part to make a believable girl. Portman is in almost every second of this movie (I can’t remember a scene without her) and she absolutely carries this picture, and she’s so committed to this role as shown in her beautiful dancing (I’m no dance expert but she fooled me, she passes a professional ballet dancer). And it sure helps that she is surrounded by mostly great supporting performances. Barbara Hershey kills as Nina’s crazy stage mom, an ex-dancer herself, living vicariously through Nina and pushing her daughter to greatness and pressure she can’t handle. Mila Kunis is great as a someone for Portman to play off as these two dancers not only compete for the role but also learn from each other (Both of these women should have been nominated for supporting actress Oscars). I wasn’t as big a fan of Vincent Cassel’s performance as the company’s director. I think he often took the character a little too far over the top and I never quite believed it as much as I did Portman’s Nina. But when Portman is that good, I don’t need much from anyone else.

All of this, plus a beautiful score from Clint Mansell that is based on the original music from the actual Swan Lake, build to an incredible finale in a beautiful movie.

The Verdict:

Black Swan is a beautiful movie. One of my favorites of 2010, though I think I’d still put True Grit above this one. This movie struck a chord with me and Portman’s performance really made me feel something. Her’s is my favorite performance by an actor of 2010. The Best Actress Oscar is her’s to lose and I would be absolutely shocked if someone else took home the trophy. This is a movie to see and a performance to be remembered.

Whose movie is it?

I’ve gotta give this one to Natalie Portman. She owns in this movie and she’s never been better. Aronofsky does a great job telling this story and creating a perfect environment for Portman to work, but without her and this performance none of his style holds up. A lesser actress could not have done what she did, and she carries every scene of this one.

Last Word:

I’ve talked a lot about how great this one is. I really did love this movie. But I do have one quick final disclaimer. This movie is rated R for good reason. I often hate the rating system and it usual stands for very little, but R means R in this case. I’m an adult and I know what I can handle. There’s some pretty sexual stuff in this movie (no nudity), but I think we should all just be aware of what we can and cannot handle and be affected by in our movies. So that’s my warning, but if you can handle a hard R rating, by all means, see this beautiful film.

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