When I sat down to watch Black Swan I really had no idea what to expect, and frankly wasn't too enthused about a film about dancers. Yes, there's lots of drama and politics in a dance troupe - after all that's where "prima dona" comes from -- but would the prospect of watching Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis compete for the lead in a performance really be entertaining?
Turns out that Black Swan is a breathtaking, intense, horrifying and beautiful cinematic essay on obsession, maturity and the fine line between reality and fantasy, and it's well worth seeing, regardless of whether you're interested in ballet.
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dancer in a Manhattan-based ballet troupe who has mastered the technical requirements of ballet but lacks the passion, sensuousness and soul to be an outstanding prima ballerina. The troupe artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) announces their next performance will be Swan Lake, but he's going to make it edgier, and the lead will need to play both the white swan, an embodiment of all that is sweet, pure and youthful, and the black swan, the dark alter ego, the sexual, aggressive counterpoint to the white swan.
Nina is cast for this role, a role that'll be the pinnacle of her dancing career, but the pressure of performing, the expectations of her obsessive, controlling mother Erica (a superb Barbara Hershey), making sure that the antithetical Lily (Kunis) doesn't steal her part and the challenge of finding the "black swan" within her innocent, child-like personality tear Nina apart, and it's that descent into madness that's the heart of the film.
Black Swan is a powerful movie with just a few small flaws, a definite contender for Best Picture this year, and a strong statement on just how far Portman has come as an actor from her early role in the Star Wars saga. It's also intense, with some alarming scenes and a few nods to horror film conventions, so I don't recommend it for the highly squeamish and will warn you not to be surprised if things aren't always as they seem on screen.