The Red Shoes (1948)
“Dance she did, and dance she must – between her two loves”
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer
Synopsis: A young ballet dancer is torn between the man she loves and her pursuit to become a prima ballerina.
Although Rank, the distributors of The Red Shoes, felt that it had little commercial potential and initially spent little on promoting the film, its stubborn refusal to disappear from the limited number of screens on which it played ultimately resulted in them giving it a wider release which saw the film hailed as something of a masterpiece. Visually, stylistically and creatively, The Red Shoes is a film that’s way ahead of its time — although that’s not unusual for a film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger: these two were responsible for the most individualistic British films of the 1940s, largely thanks to rarely, if ever, bending to the commercial pressures of the box office.
Marius Goring plays Julian Craster, an aspiring composer who writes an angry letter to impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) when he hears stolen pieces of his music in a production staged by Lermontov’s company. Lermontov is impressed by Craster’s letter and offers him a job which the young writer readily accepts. At the same time, Lermontov is impressed by the dancing of young Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), and rapidly promotes her through the ranks to play the lead role in the ballet of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes, which Craster will write. During rehearsals of The Red Shoes, a romance develops between Craster and Vicky, but when Lermontov learns of their love he coldly offers her an ultimatum — to choose between Craster and her dancing career.
Powell and Pressburger’s ravishing use of colour still looks impressive today, so it’s not difficult to imagine the kind of impression it must have made on a cinema audience still relatively unused to colour pictures back in 1948. The symbolic and tactical use of colour —whether it’s the hair-colour of the protagonists, or of the clothes that they wear — shows an incredible attention to detail. The story itself both references and parallels Anderson’s The Red Shoes, with young Vicky Page’s life and fate inextricably linked to the eponymous shoes. It’s an imaginative reworking of the tragic fairy tale, updating it to contemporary times and infusing it with an emotional resonance.
Moira Shearer gives a convincing performance which belies the fact that this was the ballet dancer’s film debut, although you can’t help thinking she wouldn’t have a chance in today’s ballet scene without shedding more than a few pounds (see Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a film which owes much to the basic plot of The Red Shoes, to see what I mean). Goring is perhaps a little one-dimensional as the youthful and passionate young composer Craster, and it’s a little unfortunate that he and Page look more like brother and sister than lovers. The film is dominated, however, by Anton Walbrook’s performance as the Svengali-like Lermontov, a character who could quite easily have been a textbook villain were he not invested which a depth of character which almost makes his behaviour understandable — if always undeserving of our sympathy.
(Reviewed 24th July 2012)