VOD film review: Birds of Paradise
James R | On 25, Sep 2021
Director: Sarah Adina Smith
Cast: Diana Silvers, Kristine Froseth, Jacqueline Bisset
Where to watch Birds of Paradise online in the UK:
There’s something inherently cinematic about ballet. It’s pure physical expression, a visual art form to communicate emotions, and work through them. But it’s also a door into a realm where every action is character-driven, a space where reality is heightened. Birds of Paradise is the latest in a long line of films to take us into that space and it’s an absorbing, graceful dive.
Based on AK Small’s 2019 novel Bright Burning Stars, the film follows Kate (Diana Silvers), an American who gets a scholarship to a prestigious ballet academy in Paris. Unable to speak French, she’s the outsider of the pack – and all too aware that she might be kicked out at a moment’s notice. A flippant remark early on puts her in the sights of Marine (Kristine Froseth), the favourite of the academy who is reeling from the loss of her twin brother, Ollie. The fact that Kate’s scholarship was set up in Ollie’s memory only adds fuel to the fire.
What begins as a hotheaded rivalry, though, soon grows into a heated bond, and the pair form an alliance to work together to share the prize at the end of their school year: a coveted spot in the Opéra National de Paris. So far, so Black Swan, and Birds of Paradise suffers from the many similar tales of gruelling dedication in the tough profession of ballet, where pill-popping helps players escape from the pressure. The sound design is full of crunching toes and stumbled footsteps, but the film is more than just a tale of competition: its focus is on female friendship rather than bitter feuds.
That’s partly thanks to the committed cast, with Froseth, who impressed in Looking for Alaska, and Silvers, who impressed in Booksmart, both throwing themselves into their roles and largely doing the choreography themselves. Silvers is vulnerable, insecure but ruthless, while Froseth is privileged and chain-smokes with as much passion as she enters into her regular pairings with class heartthrob Felipe. Between them is the stern, formidable Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset)
But it’s also thanks to writer and director Sarah Adina Smith. Smith, who last helmed the underrated Buster’s Mal Heart, is a skilled world-builder, crafting gothic-tinged atmospheres with an ethereal precision. Working with long-time collaborators DoP Shaheen Seth and composer Ellen Reid, she builds up a space that has the intimacy of a dance studio, then lets her cast unravel within it.
She leans into the emotional intensity of the tie between her lead characters, drawing out the layers of secrets and deceit at play. But the film’s strength lies in the way that it understands the intrinsic link between the internal and external – Kate and Marine’s connection begins in actual blows before it whisks us away into their own private space, one where each gesture scatters glitter across the floor. It’s a visible exchange of trust in which motions are fluent and emotions fluid. Treating all this with serious maturity rather than sensationalism, the result is a kinetic, compelling young adult drama that meditates on womanhood and support. One standout moment sees a raw modern dance routine that repeatedly climaxes in a body collapsing on the stage. We all fall down and get back up – the question is whether these young women do it alone.
Birds of Paradise is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.