Why I Love… #29: The Red Shoes

Year: 1948

Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Stars: Moira Shearer (Victoria Page), Marius Goring (Julian Craster), Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov), Robert Helpmann (Ivan Boleslawsky), Léonide Massine (Ljubov).

Genre: Romance / Melodrama

“Vicky. Little Vicky. There it is, all waiting for you…”

I came to The Red Shoes a couple of years ago mainly because I felt that I ought to have done so already. Having decided to make a conscious effort to diversify my experience in genres or eras I had hitherto neglected, the prospect of a 1940s melodrama about ballet was suitable fish-out-of-water territory.

The film was also receiving an unusual amount of press at the time for a 60-year-old movie. A recent remaster and reissue had spawned some high praising critical assessments, and full-page adverts for the DVD release of this pristine re-release littered a few magazines and newspapers. Martin Scorsese was calling it his favourite Technicolor film of all time. Not only that, but Darren Aronofsky had announced he was working on Black Swan, which was immediately drawing comparisons even before he’d finished it. So I decided to play catch up.

At first I was a little worried. As the film begins with a group of opinionated and defiantly posh students bristling with indignation at a ballet performance, I felt, to be honest, put off.  Stiff-upper-lipped post-war Britain has always seemed unduly pompous to me, and The Red Shoes was playing right into my preconceptions. And so it continued for some time. As aspiring musical director Julian Craster and phantom-in-the-making company impresario Boris Lermontov were introduced, little warmth or sympathy was particularly forthcoming in either. Was this film really beloved?

But then, as real-life ballet dancer Moira Shearer makes her debut as young hopeful Vicky Page, the film thaws and quickly I became smitten with its world. Powell & Pressburger quite effectively evoke the bustle and anticipation backstage, the gruelling camaraderie of rehearsals, the sense of collaboration and collectiveness, and the bitching and backstabbing. Lermontov casts Page as the lead in his new production of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable The Red Shoes, doling out the ballet’s scoring duties to Craster, who finds in Page his muse. Lermontov and Craster vie for Page, as the ballet itself consumes her.

This all leads to the film’s utterly remarkable set-piece. The 17-minute ballet-within-the-film, as we not only watch the ballet of The Red Shoes, but are taken inside of it. It is a marvellous feast of Technicolor invention as cast and crew fire on all cylinders to beguile the viewer. In camera effects are now-noticeable but no-less remarkable for that. Shearer’s dancing, along with Léonide Massine and Robert Helpmann’s (and the entire backing ensemble) is exemplary. Whilst the actual score by Brian Easdale draws us into the picture. To evoke a tired cliché, it really has to be seen to be believed. A remarkable piece of work.

And significantly, a large portion of not just this sequence’s success, but the whole film’s triumph and idiosyncratic flare must be contributed to Hein Heckroth, the wild card production designer. Heckroth’s previous experience was as a painter and costume designer, so his assignment to The Red Shoes was a little out of left field. However he brings to the film a painter’s eye, rich in detail and lavish in colour.

What The Red Shoes accomplishes, so remarkably, is to transport the viewer into the world of the ballet, the world of the theatre, where all is by its very nature heightened and unreal. The fairytale story itself is about becoming lost to the performance, consumed by the role. It’s a romantic notion countered by the romantic drama of the love triangle between Page, Lermontov and Caster.

Shearer’s Vicky Page is a wonderful creation, especially considering Shearer was new to film acting, whilst Anton Walbrook is nothing short of remarkable as the imposing Lermontov, remaining one of the most memorable of cinema’s unyielding artists. He is the dark figure of the director looming over a project, asserting his vision at the expense of niceties or pleasantries, and to watch that vision become twisted by obsession is as enthralling here as it is in the best tales of its kind. Powell & Pressburger’s film also explores the dark idea that contentment is the poisoned chalice to artistic accomplishment. That in order to inspire – and to be inspired – you must suffer.

A couple of paragraphs up I used the word ‘transport’. As I was putting together the sentence it was merely a strong verb to convey the effect of the film, but it is entirely fitting. I do feel transported when watching The Red Shoes. My modern life falls away and only Powell & Pressburger’s film exists. This is the ultimate achievement that all truly great cinema aspires to. Despite its age and artifice, indeed because of these things, The Red Shoes feels like going on a journey into a particular world. When Lermontov first tells Craster that he plans to produce Andersen’s fairytale, his words are lost as music whirls in Craster’s mind. This is the effect of the movie as a whole. I am taken somewhere else.

I have been tardy since. I’ve not invested further in the works of Powell & Pressburger, but I hope soon to correct that mistake. Whether anything else in their canon will measure up to the esteem in which I hold The Red Shoes remains to be seen. I fondly hope that a couple of their other classics give the film a run for its money. Regardless, The Red Shoes is one of the great British films. You don’t need so much as a passing interest in ballet to enjoy its riches. And even if British pomp irks you as it does me, rest assured that the film’s pleasures far outweigh its more caricatured elements. There is comedy here, and heart, romance, and tragedy. And, yes, dancing. Incredible dancing. How very theatrical.

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