Darren Aronofsky once again proves himself as one of the leading American independent film directors with his gloriously manic fifth feature, Black Swan.

Natalie Portman in Black Swan

After its premiere at Venice in September, no other film arrived at this year’s BFI London Film Festival with quite as much hype as Black Swan. Advanced word had already propelled Natalie Portman as the early front runner on everyone’s Best Actress list for the upcoming awards season, whilst the director, Darren Aronofsky, was looking to augment his reputation as one of the best American filmmakers working in the industry today.

Set in the highly competitive world of professional ballet, Black Swan is a vividly intimate portrait of a veteran dancer unravelling. Played with fragile grace by Natalie Portman, Nina, a seasoned ballerina, wins the title role in her prestigious company’s newest production, “Swan Lake”.

Nina’s preparations for the opening performance soon become hampered by a web of competitive intrigue that forms with a younger rival, Lily (Mila Kunis), as they both jostle for the attentions of the artistic director (Vincent Cassel). The performance requires a ballerina that can play the White Swan with innocence and grace, as well as the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality; Nina naturally reflects her role’s ethereal qualities, whilst Lily is the personification of an enigmatic doppelganger.

As their rivalry continues to grow, the dark impulses of the production slowly engulf Nina, and the pressure ultimately transforms her from a naive performer into a dangerous, metamorphosed creature.

Aronofsky has constructed a perfectly paced thriller that is undeniably and gloriously over-the-top. In continually building the momentum to an unparalleled finale, the film zips along with confidence and creates an unrelenting crescendo using the key elements of “Swan Lake” – the swans, demons and doubles – which become entwined with Nina’s psyche. Moreover it serves as a worthy companion piece to The Wrestler, (also shown at the LFF) and another opportunity for Aronofsky to explore the physically demanding realm of a largely unseen world and the obsessive pressure to be perfect.

Similarly, Black Swan is told in a cinéma-vérité style and uses the immediacy of this visceral camera technique to masterfully convey the poetry of the body and the demands of ballet to the audience. The raw, hand-held work helps create a growing sense of unease and it also captures the energy and sweat of the athletes on show. Anyone that had previously doubted the skill and arduousness of ballet will come away converted.

No one would be surprised to learn that Portman spent 10 months vigorously training for the role of Nina, and she puts in a revelatory performance thoroughly deserving of the hype. At once delicate then provocative, Portman captures both sides of the Swan perfectly and the film really belongs to her, yet she is also joined by a capable supporting cast.

Mila Kunis, as the complete antithesis, finally gets a meaty role outside of being the token girlfriend to burly men in action pictures, and Vincent Cassel is ever reliable as the Machiavellian coach. Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey also appear in a film that is universally well-acted.

Complimenting the talent is the score by long-term Aronofsky collaborator, Clint Mansell. A highly respected craftsman, whose work includes Moon and the ubiquitous Requiem for a Dream title song, Mansell skillfully weaves strands of Tchaikovsky’s iconic music throughout the score. His soundtrack helps to create extremely vivid sequences away from the claustrophobic confines of the rehearsal room, especially during a striking clubbing scene that sees Lily trying to sabotage Nina.

Ultimately Black Swan is a daring odyssey about an artists obsessive quest for perfection, however brief or fleeting that moment will be. It frequently toys with the body horror of early Cronenberg, without ever fully adopting this approach, and also thankfully avoids a fairly obvious Fight Club twist at the climax. However, this shouldn’t be surprising, as none of these comparisons should be taken as a final word, as Aronofsky has created a marvellously original piece of work and a stand out film of this, or any, year.

Black Swan will be released in UK cinemas on February 11, 2011.

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Rating: 4.3/5 (6 votes cast)
LFF Review: Black Swan, 4.3 out of 5 based on 6 ratings