Natalie’s danse macabre

A MANIA for perfection drives ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in Black Swan (US/16/107 mins), when she finally achieves her dream role, the White Swan, in Swan Lake.

A technically-brilliant dancer, Nina grows unhinged when bullied by the production’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), to dig deep into her psyche and excavate the darkness she requires to play the White Swan’s doppelganger and usurper, the Black Swan.

Darren Aronofsky’s film mirrors the narrative of Swan Lake, as Nina’s stand-in alternate, Lily (Mila Kunis), complete with black wings tattooed on her back, seeks to take Nina’s place as the production’s lead, in the process vying for Leroy’s affections. As delicately poised as any ballet, the film is a visual treat, with Aronofsky taking every opportunity to emphasise the conflict between the rivals, and within Nina herself, by layering on chiaroscuro clashes of black against white.

In effect, the story is a contemporary fairytale, with Portman — despite strong performances from Cassel, Kunis, and Barbara Hershey, as Nina’s passive-aggressive mother — shouldering the burden of manifesting the various conflicts of light and dark, good versus evil, the self versus the other. It’s a fascinating and wholly absorbing set-up, particularly as Portman’s embodying of the themes involves her struggling with body-identity issues, as the already underweight and pressurised Nina resorts to self-harm, mutilation and mental self-sabotage, all the while struggling to break free of sexual repression.

The latter stages, however, pose something of a problem. Did Aronofsky deliberately allow the tale blossom into a blood-drenched, gothic melodrama in order to mirror Nina’s increasingly histrionic mental breakdown? His conclusion appears to be that art requires the ultimate sacrifice, but in overloading the story with self-consciously artistic flourishes, the director fatally undermines his own thesis.

AMBITIOUS TV producer, Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) is offered the opportunity to resurrect an ailing morning show in Morning Glory (US/12A/106 mins), and decides that legendary reporter, Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) is the key to success. Locked into a contract, the misanthropic Pomeroy is horrified at being asked to host a frothy, light-entertainment programme, and thus begins the clash of wills that drives the narrative tension.

McAdams provides a likeable presence, and gets strong support from Diane Keaton, as Pomeroy’s bitchy co-anchor, Colleen Peck, but Ford limits himself to a performance of grunts and scowls that could well have been read from Pomeroy’s tele-prompter.

The underlying theme here claims that a morning TV show must be a blend of light entertainment and hard information to succeed, but the comedy is virtually non-existent, and the dramatic aspects are largely unconvincing. Meanwhile, the fact that McAdams’s recipe for success requires hard-nosed journalist, Pomeroy, to turn his hand to cooking omelettes will leave anyone who still believes TV to be an important medium feeling rather queasy.

ON THE verge of proposing to his girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly), Ronny (Vince Vaughn) discovers that the wife of his best friend, Nick (Kevin James), is having an affair. The Dilemma (US/12A/113 mins) is this: should Ronny tell Nick the bad news?

Ron Howard’s latest film has interesting things to say about men’s inability to communicate with men, although most of these are drowned out by Vaughn’s and James’s incessant blustering. Meanwhile, Connelly and Winona Ryder, playing Nick’s wife, both of whom offer more complex thinking on the complexity of relationships, are relegated to window-dressing. Central to the plot is the fact that Nick (of the failing marriage) is designing an engine that makes an electric car roar like a souped-up sports ride. Given that the story hammers home the necessity for absolute honesty in relationships, the irony may or may not be intended; either way, The Dilemma is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

THE OPENING credits of John Carpenter’s The Ward (US/16/88 mins) feature what appear to be Victorian-era stills of a kind of mental-asylum therapy, which would, today, be considered a form of torture. The intent, presumably, is to establish a gothic tone from the off, and to suggest that the therapeutic practices employed on Kristen (Amber Heard), which include ‘electro-convulsion’, are equally archaic when she is incarcerated in an Oregon mental institution in 1966, after being caught in the act of arson.

Kristen’s main problem, however, is how to escape the ward, before what appears to be the ghost of a murdered patient slaughters her, alongside her fellow inmates. Or is Kristen imagining it all? Considered something of a return to form for John Carpenter, The Ward is actually a tired rehash of well-worn horror tropes, the most abused being the jump-cut edit bump-and-scream. So lazy and predictable is it, in fact, that you may find yourself wishing Kristen would simply pop into one of the gaping plot-holes and tunnel out of the asylum to safety.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up