VOD film review: The Red Shoes
Ivan Radford | On 30, Aug 2019
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring
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The Red Shoes is a film with a reputation that waltzes before it and an influence that continues its bewitching dance long after its final curtain. You can see traces of it in Black Swan, Suspiria and even A Star Is Born, for this is a fable of art versus business and love versus career as much as a fairytale of fantasy and reality, of belonging and possession. It‘s a horror, a romance and a behind-the-scenes expose all pirouetted into one. And it has a full ballet sequence in the middle.
The film is inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale of a young girl who puts on a pair of red slippers, only for them to force her to continue dancing until she dies. That grim fate looms over the whole affair, colouring the lavish production with an ominous, increasingly sinister tinge.
Our hero is Vicky Page (a magnetic Moira Shearer), an up-and-coming dancer who finds herself suddenly promoted to prima donna by the company’s imperious head, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), who sees in her a fiery spark of potential. Sure enough, she becomes a living, breathing sensation, not least thanks the titular ballet that’s composed at Lermontov’s behest. The composer? Julian Craster (Marius Goring), an idealistic creative.
Both men find fulfilment in Vicky, and the tension that simmers, then smoulders than scolds between them is the bitter fuel that drives the relentless, gripping script. And yet, while Vicky and Julian fall in love, much to Boris’ anger, this isn’t a simple love triangle or study of jealous; Lermontov’s fierce desire to have ownership of his leading lady is darker, more ambiguous than that; we get a window into his philosophy and priorities when Julian comes to his office early on to complain that someone has taken credit for his compositions, a claim that Boris refuses to entertain or acknowledge. His is a closed world of status and perfection, and he crafts it with a Faustian tyranny; anything that jeopardises it might as well burn in Hell, as far as he’s concerned.
Shearer is magnificent as the woman trapped on this ride, which, like the shoes in the original story, won’t let her escape. She’s backed up by the wonderfully earnest Goring, and matched by the impeccable Walbrook – the scene-stealing co-star of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. There is sympathy or at least awe and respect owed to each character, backed up by the genuine dancing talents of Shearer, who leaps off the screen with a bold, tragic vivaciousness.
This central trip is choreographed flawlessly by British legends Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who bring the whole thing to life with a ravishing burst of Technicolor, a dose of realistic showbiz insight (one standout sequence simply sees Julian presenting the new ballet to the company’s creative crew), and a confident sense of pace that allows them to get away with pausing the plot to feature a lengthy dance sequence.
But the dance is, of course, part of the consuming power of the inevitable narrative, a run and a jump with an irresistible pull both on stage and in the streets – a winding blur of dreamlike fiction and reality that cinematographer Jack Cardiff lenses both gloriously and hauntingly. Will Vicky choose her career or her lover? The truth is there is no choice available; there is nothing but the dance, and the stage slowly fades away until there’s no boundary left between the surreal, theatrical mirror of her life and her feet’s blood-red fate.
The Red Shoes is available on BFI Player+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.