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Review: Black Swan

Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Nina Sayers is a young ballet dancer with a New York troupe. Nina is totally dedicated to her craft, to the exclusion of all else. Reserved, naive and driven, Nina’s pursuit of perfection is stretched to breaking point when she wins the lead in Swan Lake. Called on to portray both the white swan, for which she is perfectly suited, and the black swan, which requires her to tap into the passions she works so hard to control, Nina begins to descend into paranoia and madness.

Black Swan is the movie that everyone is talking about, it seems. It’s already being mentioned in the same breath as Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. With his previous movie, The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky dealt with the struggles of a man who had made it to the top and fallen. This time around his focus turns to a woman struggling to make it to that top. Each film deals with success, viewed from different ends of the journey. However, Black Swan is the far darker journey of the two.

Those with no interest in ballet may be put off by the movie’s setting, but the truth is Black Swan is no more about ballet than Psycho was about hotels. Nina’s desperate struggle to be the best, and to win the approval of those around her is as universal a theme as any, and although we are given a solid lesson in the ruthlessness and competitiveness of the ballet world, Black Swan is more concerned in following Nina’s descent into hell. This it does, and it doesn’t pull punches along the way. Layered, sometimes disturbing and always engaging, Black Swan is an enthralling portrayal of a disintegrating psyche.

Central to the film’s success, of course, is the performance of Natalie Portman as Nina. For an hour and forty minutes the camera never leaves her side and Portman is absolutely fantastic. Her portrayal of the increasingly fractured Nina is flawless, never hitting an off-note, never anything less than utterly convincing. Just as the story of Nina mirrors the famous ballet she is performing, so the dedication to her craft of Portman mirrors that of her character. It’s the perfect fusion of actor and role and if, by the end, you are not completely invested in Nina’s fate then you should probably check your pulse.

Behind you!

Revolving around Portman are an equally accomplished troupe. Vincent Cassell tones down his usual mania as Nina’s passionate director, Barbara Hershey is subtle and sometimes chilling as her overbearing mother, and Mila Kunis is excellent as the far more unrestrained Lily, yang to Nina’s yin and focus of Nina’s paranoia. And holding it all together is the assured work of Aronofsky, who never allows his direction to become showy, distracting or intrusive, despite the constant scrutiny of Portman’s increasingly tortured face.

One of the best psychological thrillers for a long while, with moments both horrific and moving, Black Swan is well worth your time. The Oscars are now only two months away and if Natalie Portman doesn’t walk away with the Best Actress statuette it will be very hard for the Academy to justify.

Rating - 5 Stars