A fledgling ballerina played by Natalie Portman may not seem to have much in common with a hulking has-been played by Mickey Rourke, but Darren Aronofsky has said that his new ballet film, Black Swan, is a companion piece to his 2009 hit, The Wrestler.
You can see what he means. In both films, he uses grainy photography and intrusive handheld cameras to peer at the sometimes gruesome physical lengths that the protagonists go to to put on a show. In Black Swan, be prepared to see bleeding toenails and cracking bones.
But aches and pains are the least of Portman's problems. After years of toiling in Vincent Cassel's New York ballet company, she's cast as the lead in Swan Lake, even though Cassel doubts if she can embody the sensuous Black Swan as easily as she can the virginal white. As opening night approaches, Portman is haunted by unsettling visions, many of them involving Mila Kunis, the company newcomer, a smoky-voiced free spirit. Portman is either being menaced by demonic forces, or going round the bend.
An exotic mix of backstage soap opera and Gothic horror movie, Black Swan is certainly effective: you jump at the spooky stuff just as surely as you wince at the dancers' exertions. But by the fifth time Portman sees a ghostly face in the mirror, or Cassel snaps that she needs to be less inhibited, you may feel that some more plot wouldn't have gone amiss. The crux is that while Rourke's washed-up lunk in The Wrestler was all-too-human, the characters in Black Swan are archetypes, as stark and artificial as the black-and-white production design in Cassel's apartment. Portman sets out trembling, teary, and prone to seeing things, so there's nowhere left for her character to go. Barbara Hershey, meanwhile, does Smothering Stage Mother, and Cassel is simply the Sneering Svengali.
Only during its last 15 minutes does Black Swan stop being a high-class pastiche of a melodrama and start being a whirling, nightmarish, gloriously unhinged farce in its own right. The climax leaves you reeling – and thinking that Aronofsky should have heeded Cassel's instructions, and given way to his dark, unfettered instincts a bit sooner.
Portman's commitment to her role is extraordinary, although in some ways Rachel McAdams is just as good in Morning Glory. She plays a workaholic provincial TV producer who takes charge of a failing New York breakfast show, largely because no one else wants the job. Her perky energy alone improves office morale, but her big idea is to employ Harrison Ford as Diane Keaton's co-presenter. He, however, is a grizzled, Pulitzer-winning crusader who isn't keen to chat about pet make-overs at 5am.
Aline McKenna (who wrote The Devil Wears Prada) and Roger Michell (who directed Notting Hill) set up this premise with wit and brio. The artful tableaux and throwaway gags set it above most Hollywood comedies, and McAdams has more charm in one flick of her fringe than Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson have in their whole careers. But once we've been introduced to all the characters, Morning Glory begins to skitter around, as if the film-makers have their doubts about a story promoting the further dumbing down of breakfast TV. Instead of a plot, we're given repeated scenes of McAdams's peppiness versus Ford's grumpiness, and a tacked-on romance with a smarmy Patrick Wilson, who acts as if he's doing McAdams a favour by sleeping with her. The film is still a jolly evening out – but you might not remember it the next morning.
Nicholas Barber sees Paul Giamatti's Golden Globe-winning performance in Barney's Version
Also Showing: 23/01/2011
The Dilemma (107 mins, 12A)
When Vince Vaughn sees his best friend's wife, Winona Ryder, kissing another man, he has to decide whether or not to spill the beans. But the real dilemma apparent in Ron Howard's tiresome film is whether it should be a feel-good vehicle for Vaughn and Kevin James's matey banter, or a sour psychodrama about the fury of a woman scorned. Weird.
John Carpenter's The Ward (88 mins, 15)
John Carpenter's downward spiral continues with this humdrum horror mystery set in a haunted, all-female asylum ward in the 1960s.
Ride, Rise, Roar (87 mins, 12A)
David Byrne in concert, accompanied by avant-garde dancers. He performs several songs featured in the classic Stop Making Sense, so film-wise you could see it as an inferior remake.
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (108 mins, U)
Impeccable documentary about the idiosyncratic pianist, constructed from a wealth of archive footage, radio recordings and new interviews with friends and colleagues.
I Spit on Your Grave (107 mins, 18)
This remake of the 1970s rape-and-revenge movie has no fresh ideas – and, worse, no tension. In the first half, the bland heroine has absolutely no chance against the (yawn) slack-jawed hicks who humiliate her for our entertainment, and in the second half, they have absolutely no chance of escaping her Heath-Robinson traps.
Honeymooner (74 mins, 15)
No-budget British comedy detailing the love lives of three clueless blokes in Camden. Must try harder.Reuse content