Darren Aronofsky, director of critically acclaimed The Wrestler (2008), has returned with another intense portrait of an individual; but this time it’s not a sweaty Mickey Rourke but a porcelain doll Natalie Portman gracing our screens as we turn our focus away from the ring and towards the New York City Ballet.
The film follows top ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) as she comes to grips with the role of both the White and the Black Swan in a new take on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina inhabits a depressingly empty world and yet is smothered by the small group of people who surround her: her mother (Barbara Hershey), a ballerina who had to stop her career short when she had Nina and clearly now expects to fulfil her dreams through her, her boundary-blurring boss (Vincent Cassel) who puts her in increasingly compromising positions and forces her to question herself deeply and her rival (Mila Kunis), who threatens to be not quite as laid-back and lovely as she has first appeared. All of these people become increasingly suspect and their intentions increasingly ambiguous as we follow Nina through her high pressure but desperately dull daily life and become further and further enmeshed in her neuroses.
On paper, the film looks fascinating and there are some truly interesting ideas behind the film, but unfortunately these only really come clearly into play towards the end. The last half hour of the film is fast-moving, visually stunning and genuinely compelling. Up to this point, however, the film is vague and unengaging. Watching her banal daily routine is, rather predictably, uninteresting. A sense of eerie discomfort and the promise of a storyline does keep you wanting to watch but unfortunately, it gets going too late and for such a short time that it remains, on the whole, disappointing.
All the performances are good, especially Mila Kunis, whom you may know as Jackie from That ’70s Show, whose character remains infuriatingly charming and ambiguous throughout. Do not watch this for Winona Ryder, as she features very little and is always playing hysterical when she does. Natalie Portman is much-tipped for an Oscar for this and her performance is convincing, intense and nuanced but does not allow her to show all of her range.
To put it bluntly, this is a strange film. ‘Strange’ is, of course, not always a bad thing. It is interesting in subverting certain clichés and getting us to root for a technically brilliant professional who lacks the necessary passion for her role, as opposed to a maverick lacking technical training, as is the norm in these sorts of films. The film certainly manages to be original and, in terms of visuals, almost hypnotic. However, this much-hyped film is ultimately underwhelming.