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The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes

By Ben Nicholson • August 28th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
The Archers

Original release: September 6th, 1948
Running time: 133 minutes

Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Writers: Emeric Pressburger, Keith Winter

Cast: Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook, Leonide Massine

The Red Shoes

“But I tell you, they won’t wait until the end – they’ll applaud in the middle,” claims the director, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), ahead of Vicky Paige’s (Moira Shearer) first leading role for his ballet company in The Red Shoes.

It appears it’s not just in the stories and themes the film shares with its titular central performance, as I am certainly one devotee who is happily applauding well before the film closes. However, this was not always the case; The Red Shoes faltered in the UK upon its initial release in 1948 and found considerably more success and fame in America. When offered the part, Shearer, who was a dancer by trade, was highly reluctant to accept it, considering appearing in a movie almost an artistic compromise. Since then though, film has been elevated to a much higher station as an art form and this film has been elevated, and rightly so, to the level of a classic.

Having re-watched The Red Shoes for the first time since seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, it struck me just how much the latter owes to this film. Although his movie is perhaps slightly more gothic and horrific in its visuals and more akin to a Giallo, it shares such similar themes and a somewhat terrifying psychological angle as well as being set around the same subject.

The Red Shoes sees the Boris Lermontov take on two young artists whilst in London; the young dancer Vicky Paige and composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Lermontov asks Julian to write a new score for the ballet of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Red Shoes about a young woman who is danced to death by her magical footwear. Vicky takes the lead and is a massive success throughout the season with her dancing and Julian’s music bringing adoration. A romance between them ends the company’s run however as a jealous Lermontov dismisses the composer and Vicky goes with him. Bitter, Lermontov tempts VIcky back for one more performance.

Emeric Pressburger’s screenplay beautifully weaves together Anderson’s original story into both the ballet performance and the surrounding dramas of the company, and whilst I would not want to spoil the film for anyone, the ending is fairly open for all to see early on. However it isn’t the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ that matters as we’re treated to some truly stunning sequences by Powell and Pressburger.

The Red Shoes

The tent-pole scene is, as you may expect, the absolutely amazing central opening performance of the ballet in which we see Vicky rise to the challenge of dancing the Red Shoes and Julian’s music rise to the challenge of meeting her skill. It is also one of the most breathtaking sequences in film history, Vicky lets go and the dizzying sequence completely forgets about the physical boundaries of the stage. We see the dance through her eyes, blurring reality and fantasy.

It always gives me chills when she first looks into the shop window and sees the shoes waiting for her and then sees herself standing in them. Is that her character in the shoes, or Vicky herself?

Apart from the dancing, The Red Shoes explores devotion to one’s art through a number of the characters. Before she has been given the role in The Red Shoes, we see Lermontov fixing Vicky with an intense stare as she dances the lead in Swan Lake, and her somewhat startling look back. When he asks her why she wants to dance, Vicky retorts with “Why do you want to live?”, “Well I don’t know exactly why, but I must,” he responds and thus we get her answer as well.

Even when they are happily married, Julian wakes in the night with a voice singing in his head. He gets out of bed and goes to his piano to play what his dream has sung to him. Vicky also wakes, goes to her wardrobe and holds her ballet shoes longingly.

The backstage rivalries add to the melodrama surrounding the ballet with what seems initially like a power struggle between Julian and the conductor and a much more serious struggle between Boris and Julian for Vicky. It’s a burning passion for her The Red Shoeswhich feeds both of their flames and although Boris is adamant that he doesn’t see her charms, he merely sees her ability to dance, he is still making plans for a romantic meal for two when he learns of her dalliance with Mr. Craster.

The performances are excellent all around and help to complete the melodramatic theatrical tone of the film. I am always enamoured with Ljubov (Leonide Massine), especially in the central dance where he plays the shoe-maker, a spritely, almost darkly magical character whom he imbues with just enough mischief and menace.

What I love the most about The Red Shoes is its ability to sweep me up every time I watch it. Even though I know exactly what’s going to happen, I still feel my heart thumping in my chest and catch myself gasping along with everyone else. The central dance alone completely transports me. It may not have set British hearts alight when it was first released but I, like the rest of the world it seems, adore it more and more with time.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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