Obsession. Passion. The push for perfection. Ballet seems a perfect backdrop for that which keeps a film interesting. For most of its length, however, The Red Shoes is a straightforward story about some people putting on a ballet – with things going quite well, thank you very much. This cannot last, however – you know how film ballet is!
Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is a very promising young composer who wants the chance to write his own scores. Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) is a talented young dancer who thinks she wants nothing from life but the opportunity to be the best ballerina she can be. Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is a successful ballet producer and a ruthless man who thinks that human nature can be set aside by those pursuing artistic perfection. Lermontov seems an emotionless man only interested in the ballet. He doesn’t respect any prima ballerina who gives up her art to get married and have a family. To him perfection can only be obtained by those whose passion is not diluted by being shared with another human being. These three principal characters are all passionate and obsessive… and like it or not, they are human beings, too.
The Red Shoes is weak when it comes to its ultimate resolution. Other than Lermontov, its characters do not display much in the way of inner turmoil. This means that character motivation is an issue – particularly when, rather abruptly, things really do get out of hand. The film’s strengths are in its tale, its wonderful performances and the dancing. Moira Shearer was a famous Scottish ballerina and several of the other cast members were also accomplished ballet dancers. This talent doesn’t go to waste as there’s a lot of dancing, including about fifteen minutes dedicated to the opening night of the ballet. Unlike some other films I’ve seen that have dedicated a large chunk of their duration to a show (i.e. The Great Ziegfeld and Wonderbar), the ballet of The Red Shoes is quite a spectacle. There’s emotion and plenty of wonderful little special effects here and there to show us the ballet through the mind of our ballerina rather than merely its audience. Technicolor is used to great effect throughout, especially in the ballet sequence. Moira Shearer’s hair is so impossibly red and she’s so distinctively beautiful that there’s bound to be a bit of a dust up sooner or later…
Anton Walbrook really shines as Lermontov. Those who try to conquer themselves and deny their own humanity can be consumed by the most volatile, volcanic passions and I found the scene where his control begins to slip the most powerful in the entire film. The other actors put in fine performances too but their emotional development simply isn’t given the screen time it should have gotten.
Weaknesses aside, everything else in The Red Shoes is done so extraordinarily well that I feel it simply must be seen. It’s a remarkable film, and one which should appeal to those with little interest in ballet. I’ve literally only seen two – a remarkable production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and a so-so effort at Don Quixote – both by the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2008. Whether you feel like risking a ballet yourself after seeing The Red Shoes (I suspect you might…), you should certainly enjoy this show.