Natalie Portman takes flight in this psychological thriller
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: R Grade: A+
Natalie Portman is all grown up and the proof is in her searing portrayal of the innocent perfectionist Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s intense exploration into the dark heart of a rising ballerina. As Nina, Portman embraces, to the fullest, the girlishness and wide-eyed striving of an artist who has been little more than an instrument to be set in motion by others. She pushes her body to the limit, but at great personal cost. In theory, Nina knows passion and beauty and precision, but she hasn’t trusted her wings enough to make an attempt to fly.
Her moment comes when the ballet’s artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) taps her for the lead role of the Swan Queen in a strikingly new interpretation of “Swan Lake,” one that will force her to dance beyond mere technical brilliance into the darkness where she will have to let it all go. Along the way, Nina slowly begins to unravel and Aronofsky starts off with a myriad of reflective surfaces, cueing us into the notion that Nina’s fragile psyche is set to fragment into dangerous shards. When it does, the camera pulls a neat trick, drawing us so close to Nina that at times it seems like we are looking out from either behind her eyes or from her shoulder as if we are the devil and angel combo locked in immortal combat for control.
And soon, her reflection rebels, turning on her, casting withering stares, and clawing savagely at her back. Next, she sees doppelgangers in the streets, on subways, approaching her on the dark streets and in abandoned alleyways and of course, she (and we) imagines they are coming after her too. Her greatest enemy though is Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer in the troupe, a sexually liberated free spirit with wings tattooed on her back who becomes Nina’s confidante-lover-rival. Lily, with her name ironically recalling references of lily-white purity, is the personification of darkness that Nina needs to embrace in order to truly dance both the white and black swan sides of the Swan Queen.
Portman commands the screen and through her own career traces the trajectory of Nina. She has been the precocious young actress, the preternaturally aware girl raised by an assassin (“The Professional”), the youthful next door neighbor in love with a grown, but arrestedly developed man (“Beautiful Girls”), the little lost stepdaughter of a driven cop (“Heat”), but it seems as if she would forever play these roles; never able to grow up. Graced (or cursed) with good genes, she has waited for time to catch up with her psychological depth and now she has danced right up to the precipice and has taken that final leap.
The girl is gone and “Black Swan” takes flight. With Portman shouldering the burden onscreen, Aronofsky has crafted a spellbinding blend of Kubrickian execution and sensual pop psychosis to rival David Fincher’s “Fight Club.” It is a thing of beauty and perfection, epic and tragic.