Monday, 21 July 2008

The Red Shoes (1948, UK, Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

Justifiably selected as one of the ten best British films of all time in a recent BFI poll, 'The Red Shoes' is a dazzling reminder of the golden age of British cinema and perhaps the most famous example of the brilliance of The Archers production team (Powell and Pressburger). It's a film that works superbly on both a narrative and visual level - on one hand it's a moving melodrama about a dancer torn between her love for her art and her love for her partner, whilst on the other it was like nothing British audiences would have seen at the time, a dizzying explosion of colour and expressionism. Little wonder therefore that Martin Scorsese cites it as one of the most influential films upon his career.

Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a humble dancer in the Lermontov ballet troupe is discovered by the driven yet charismatic Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and made a star of, whilst simultaneously falling for the composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). However in true melodramatic fashion, one can't have what one both loves, and Victoria has to make a choice - to marry the love of her life, or become a slave to her art. Add into the mix the ballet of The Red Shoes itself, based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale about the girl whose shoes would not allow her to stop dancing until tragedy struck. Victoria's life ultimately is fated to echo hers. Whilst this has the potential to sound a little contrived and unoriginal - the love triangle dimension has been done before (though this is love between a man and one's art), it's handled so confidently by film makers at the peak of their powers, it's always convincing.

Most discussion about the film rightly rests with its visual brilliance. Consider that the norm for British made films was to use black and white stock; very few films had been filmed in colour by the late 1940s. 'The Red Shoes' was something different, something new. The eye-popping use of colour would have been a revelation. The ballet sequences are a masterful example of expressionism, with Victoria's fragile psychological state laid bare for us to see. As she takes off in 'The Red Shoes' ballet, the theatrical setting transforms into something much more dreamlike and artificial, with Victoria floating in space whilst seemingly hysterical and traumatised by the prospect of being torn between Craster (love) and Lermontov (art). This sequence exists as a microcosm of the film's visual artistry; an assault on the viewer's senses, but the film is much more than that. It's a demonstration of British cinematic confidence during its peak by arguably it's finest film makers. A masterpiece. 5/5

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