Natalie Portman delivers the performance of her career thus far in “Black Swan,” Darren Aronofsky’s remarkably alluring and disturbing psychological thriller set within the beautiful, competitive and treacherous world of dance.
Portman, a captivating, graceful sight in the opening minutes alone, expertly portrays Nina Sayers, a dedicated, motivated and introverted New York ballerina cast in the signature roles of a reconceived presentation of “Swan Lake” (presumably by the New York City Ballet.) At first, the ballet company’s demanding, sexually candid artistic director Thomas Leroy (a brooding and suave Vincent Casell) feels Nina is only suited to play the innocent White Swan, but offers her the role of the seductive Black Swan after she discards her demure persona and bites him during a passionate kiss. Nina’s ascension, greeted with contempt by her fellow dancers, affords Thomas the opportunity to shove older ballerina Beth Macintyre (a terrifically fierce Winona Ryder) into early retirement, a decision that predictably infuriates Beth and traumatizes Nina in turn.
“Her scenes with the magnetic Kunis titillate with sexual chemistry and tension.”
Expectedly, Nina endures many physical and emotional hardships in her quest for perfection, particularly from Thomas’ rigorous tutelage and the uneasy companionship of her doting yet obsessive ex-dancer mother Erica (a marvelously stern Barbara Hershey in what could be perceived as a comeback), but her world is completely turned upside down by the arrival of new company member Lily (Mila Kunis in her best role to date), a talented dancer from San Francisco with mischievous aims. Nina is wary of her laidback yet ambitious rival, but is sucked into her intimidating vortex nonetheless with dangerous, confusing repercussions. At one point, it’s hard to believe Nina would be so willing to agree to a night on the town with Lily mere days before a gala performance, but it fuels Nina’s inability to see matters as they are. Lily’s mind games, professional and sexual, continuously warp Nina’s subconscious, propelling her troublesome, deep-seated paranoia to unsettling degrees.
Portman looks as stunning as ever in rehearsal and performance, a reflection of the training that went into her preparation. The athleticism, the commitment, the bewildered joy of capturing a coveted role, and the torture of attempting greatness is solidly conveyed in her luminous portrayal that manages to be simultaneously lovely and terrifying at times. Her scenes with the magnetic Kunis titillate with sexual chemistry and tension. Opposite Hershey she epitomizes the frustration of young women longing to embrace womanhood even though they remain little girls in the eyes of their mothers.
One wouldn’t expect Aronofsky, the dark auteur behind such films as “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Wrestler,” to embrace theelegant magnificence of ballet, but this slight departure proves to be a fascinating change of pace. In addition to authentically capturing the cold grittiness of the Big Apple, Aronofsky’s character-focused imprint is displayed in the aggressive rehearsal scenes, the fluidity of the performance sequences, the gripping moments of mental horror, his penchant for intimate close-ups and handheld camerawork, and a striking attention to detail encompassing shoe repair, crackling bones, physical therapy, choreographer input and costume fittings. Matthew Libatique’s splendid cinematography also secures a distinct sense of atmosphere from the halls of Lincoln Center to Nina and Erica’s confined Upper West Side apartment.
With Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous strains as an evocative underscore, “Black Swan” takes center stage as a compelling if overly intensified depiction of artistry, madness and mystery wonderfully bolstered by Portman’s breathtaking, Oscar worthy performance.
Length: 1 hour and 48 minutes
“Black Swan” will begin its Dayton engagement at the Neon Movies beginning Friday, December 17.