Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Red Shoes (1948) - Michael Powell

What's the first thing that pops into your mind when you see or hear the words The Archers? If it's something to do with the fictional village of Ambridge then you probably don't qualify as a film bore/obsessive. If however you think of the film production team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, then that would probably explain why you are reading a film blog in the first place. Between 1943 and 1957 they created some of the greatest British films ever, including this little beauty that I'm writing about here. 

Year in year out, there are certain films and directors that I always return to. Twelve months doesn't pass in my home without a handful of Kurosawa, Coen Brothers, Loach, Hitchcock and a whole stack of others films being stuffed into the DVD player. That goes double for Powell & Pressburger films, well the good ones at any rate, of which there are more than enough.

Anyway onto The Red Shoes, it's loosely based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The film is about the sacrifices artists have to make for the sake of their art, the extremes that people push themselves to, and the general idea that what the viewer sees is only half the story. Quite often great works of art are born out of pain, tragedy and those other dark things that most ordinary people spend their lives trying to avoid. This is true not only of films, but sport, writing, music, dance, comedy, painting, almost everything in fact. Maybe that's why we are so drawn to people like Francis Bacon, George Best, William Burroughs, Spike Milligan et cetera. Okay so let's get back on track shall we?

Anton Walbrook in possibly his finest role is Boris Lermontov, the hard headed cold hearted founder of the world famous Ballet Lermontov. Moira Shearer is Vicky Page a young gifted dancer, and Marius Goring is Julian Craster a young composer and the last of our doomed triangle of characters. Right from the get go we are thrown straight into the world of ballet, with the real world staying well and truly outside. Come back though, even if you have no interest or knowledge of ballet (like myself), have no fear since we are guided through this foreign land by our two novices Vicky Page and Julian Craster. Both of whom are plucked from obscurity by Lermontov, and put to work on creating a ballet of The Red Shoes. Of course Page and Craster fall for each other, much to Lermontov's annoyance. In his world you choose either life or ballet, there is no third option. It's this that is the meat of the film and what propels it along to it's tragic ending.

Now this being directed by Powell you know it's going to look stunning (which it does), but on top of that we have Jack Cardiff, who I doubt anyone would argue is one of the greatest cinematographers ever. Cardiff received special training from Technicolor on how to best use their process. Obviously an apt student Cardiff makes this one of the best British Technicolor films you'll ever see. Especially the 17 minute long ballet sequence in the middle. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that didn't I? Powell & Pressburger are audacious enough to be able to slip The Red Shoes ballet into the center of the film. It's a condensed version, but all the same the fact that it doesn't ruin the flow of the film is a masterstroke. The Red Shoes is quite simply about a pair of enchanted (aren't they always?) shoes that once put on, are unable to stop dancing. This leads to the heroine of the ballet literally dancing herself to death. As far as stories within stories go, this is one of the best. Obviously anyone that knows their films will realise that the story of The Red Shoes ballet has to be echoed in The Red Shoes film. Which of course it is.

There is so much to say about this film, for a start it is so opulent, so lavish, with post war Britain still on rations, life must have felt as if it was in black & white, so this was the type of escapism that people deserved and needed. I'd say if you haven't seen it then you really should try and alter that as soon as possible. It's a perfect rainy Sunday afternoon film, best seen with tea and digestives. Those that have seen it will know that rather than reading about it, it is far better to dig it out and watch it again. I'm still kicking myself for missing out on the opportunity of seeing this at the cinema last year. But then that's me all over, maybe next time, eh?

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