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'Black Swan' an intense flight

Article Published: Jan. 5, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
'Black Swan' an intense flight

Natalie Portman stars in 'Black Swan.'

When you think ballet, "intense" isn't the first word that comes to mind.

Dancers will tell you otherwise, but let's face it - ballet isn't for everyone.

Neither is Darren Aronofsky's beautifully filmed and utterly intense "Black Swan," a harrowing psychological drama that should earn its star, Natalie Portman ("Brothers"), a well-deserved Oscar nod.

I'd hesitate to call this a ballet movie, since its crux is obsession and the naturally ensuing madness, but, as director Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream") did with professional wrestling in 2009's "The Wrestler," ballet's physical and mental demands are presented with gritty, muscle-tensing, bone-crackling realism.

It's a role in itself, demonstrating the delicate balance between control and breaking point, as Portman's protagonist teeters between the two, much like Mickey Rourke's titular character in "The Wrestler."

But, unlike its predecessor, "Black Swan" seamlessly incorporates the surreal, harkening back to Aronofsky's earlier work, where the line between reality and fantasy is muddled at best.
Portman is Nina Sayers, a lifelong ballerina whose obsession with her work is rivaled only by her overprotective, ex-ballerina mother's (Barbara Hershey, "Falling Down") obsession with her success.

A regular in a New York City dance company, Nina's eyeing the coveted role of the Swan Queen in director Thomas's (Vincent Cassel, "Eastern Promises") minimalist production of "Swan Lake."
With aging prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder, "Beetlejuice") forced into retirement, Nina lands the part. But the Swan Queen is a dual role, half epitomizing innocence and purity, with the other representing lust and sensuality.

Considering Nina's mild manners and caged home life, she's ideal to play the innocent White Swan, but Thomas is doubtful of her ability to effectively portray the seductive Black Swan.
He encourages the technically-minded Nina to explore her dark side, physically and emotionally, to prepare for her role. Already consumed by her dream of playing the Swan Queen, she's soon consumed by the role, her obsession manifesting itself through terrifying hallucinations and delusion.

Enter Lily (Mila Kunis, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), an alluringly free-spirited dancer whose effortlessness on stage fits the Black Swan to a tee, influencing Thomas to cast her as Nina's alternate, much to Nina's paranoid dismay.

As the premiere draws nearer, Nina pushes herself harder and to new, dangerous limits, struggling with her duality and suffering for it, with the strain manifesting itself both physically and mentally.

Aronofsky treats Nina's madness as if it's our own, seamlessly weaving it into the narrative landscape, as her own is haunted by nightmarish visions of doppelgangers, ghosts and other horrors.

In many ways, "Black Swan" is reminiscent of 1990's "Jacob's Ladder," starring Tim Robbins, in which the protagonist's inner demons manifest themselves in visions. Nina's predicament is similar, though Aronofsky's approach is considerably more delicate, at points prompting viewers to question what's really happening in the story. As usual, Aronofsky leaves some elbow room for interpretation.

Adding to the intensity are an expert score from Clint Mansell ("Moon"), who incorporates haunting themes from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" to powerful effect, and cinematography from Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique ("The Fountain") that makes ballet an edge-of-your-seat experience.

But it's the powerhouse performance from Portman that steals the show. She's spellbinding as Nina, conveying her character's essence almost by presence alone, be it a nervous glance or simple hesitation.

She embodies her character's tension, which is even reflected in her dancing. It's a passionate performance that's convincing through and through, easily one of Portman's best.

The supporting cast is also spot-on, with Kunis delivering a gleefully venomous performance as the yin to Nina's yang. Hershey is convincing and utterly disturbing as Nina's overprotective mother, living vicariously through her daughter and wreaking emotional havoc in the process.
And though her role is limited to a matter of minutes, Ryder shines as a ballerina past her prime, bitter and alone from the years of obsession that were her own undoing.

Though Aronofsky's attention to detail seems obsessive in its own right, "Black Swan" is hardly his undoing. Uncomfortable, armrest-grippingly intense and also poignant, it's a film rich in character, a gripping tale about obsession and its maddening, life-threatening results, told expertly by one of modern cinema's sharpest directors.

"Black Swan," rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, visit

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