Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Black Swan, a review


Black SwanI have just got back home after watching Black Swan at the cinema. I think I want to call it a psychological thriller, but it is not a generic film. It is an intense journey that leads you on a dark, emotional introspection of the fragility of human nature, and self-destructive perfectionism. I was left in such a state that I could not speak as the credits rolled, and could barely manage a ‘wow’.

Black Swan is shocking, mesmerising, brutal and beautiful. It may be a film about ballet, but it is dark and tough, and the dance scenes are hypnotically beautiful — flounce and tutus this is not. Darren Aronofsky has directed his best film yet; the promise of The Fountain and The Wrestler have come to perfection here. He has put together an accomplished cast. Vincent Cassel excels as the intensely demanding director of the NYC Ballet who takes a more than personal interest in the development of his principal dancers, and Barbara Hershey is a brilliant choice for the narcissistic pushy mother living vicariously through her daughter, rising ballet star, whose loving support is overshadowed by an obsessive, controlling and ever-present menace. Both Cassel and Hershey anchor the film with their performances, portraying the two characters who dominate the young dancer’s life — ballet company and home.

Natalie Portman, as Nina, the dancer around whom the story is spun, finally shows that, given a director and script of quality, she can really act. Portman portrays the perfectionist ballerina sympathetically as both a vulnerable innocent and psychologically disturbed (both anorexia nervosa and self-harm are strongly suggested). The camera puts us inside Nina’s head, so that we are left wondering if things we see are really happening or just occur in her inner life — passing daydreams and half-glanced sightings of things keep us unsure of ourselves, our own eyes — is she paranoid or are they really out to get her? The film uses CGI to enhance these, rather than its usual use as a distraction.

The story revolves around a ballet company fallen on hard times and trying to reinvent itself with a new production of Swan Lake. The ageing principal dancer is summarily fired (a role disturbingly inhabited by Winona Ryder, eliciting much sympathy from the viewer) and the search is on for the new Swan Queen, one dancer who can dance both the pure, perfect White Swan and her destructive, passionate twin, the Black Swan. Nina (Portman) is step-perfect for the White Swan, but struggles to find the passion to dance the alter ego. Among the company’s other dancers are the ambitious Veronica (Ksenia Solo) and passionate Lily (Mila Kunis), both of whom are perceived by Nina as jealous rivals. However, Lily’s ability to dance the Black Swan, makes her both Nina’s friend and foe, both potential lover and destroyer.

The duality of the Black and White Swans being embodied by a single dancer speaks of a similar duality in us — perfection requires both and destroys both. The fragility of our bodies and minds is revealed, and sexuality is a reflection of our inner turmoil. All the main actors embody this duality perfectly — here there are no goodies and baddies — being all believably ‘nice’ characters always on the verge of being overcome by darkness. I left the cinema (and it is definitely worth seeing on the big screen) speechless with the adrenaline still coursing through my veins, knowing that I had seen a mesmerising portrayal of the darkness and fragility of human nature, which, in turn, is perversely a celebration of the beautiful core of our being.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

5 thoughts on “Black Swan, a review

  1. I heard that Meryl Streep was considered for the role of the mother. I think Barbara Hershey acted well, but imagine if it had been Streep in that role? Maybe Streep would have gotten the Oscar nomination that Hershey didn’t get… In any case, good review. I wrote one the other day if you’re interested (

    • Hi cinethinkster, and thank you for your comment. Perhaps, if Meryl Streep had played the mother role, she might have won an Oscar for it. However, I wonder if a performance by her might have overbalanced the film, and that Barbara Hershey’s turn was darker and more finely balanced than Streep would have done. Streep is a great character actress, but the role of mother in Black Swan is not so much of a human being but of a psychological persona half of Nina’s imagining.

  2. I was tweeting away on twitter trying to find something to cure my boredom – and POW – somebody I follow tweeted this post. Now, I am not quite as bored. Thanks for posting great material. – Frisbee

  3. Pingback: Black Swan, a review « Parafeminista

  4. Pingback: Why are films so sexist? « Ad Fontes

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