The Red Shoes (1948) – Review

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Moira Shearer reminds me of Debra Messing. Or should it be the other way around? Regardless, they are both beautiful redheads with deep, mesmerising eyes. I asked my wife if she’d ever seen the film as I sat down on this lazy tuesday morning with only Netflix for company, but she hadn’t, though had read the story as a child. Having never seen this Powell & Pressburger production based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, nor recalling the fairytale itself even, I was able to view this version free of prejudice or pre-conceived notion.

And it is a glorious, sumptuous production. The Archers’ (as Pressburger & Powell were known) use of technicolor is beautifully captured here and as good an example of their work in this area as any and the homage to dance is obvious, if not over-egged, in fact. The film is fairly true to the original story (so I’m told), with the daughter of an aristocrat getting the chance to join a ballet company run by the famous Boris Lermontov, played here with almost chewable jealousy and palpable and barely concealed seething envy by Anton Walbrook.

Moira Shearer plays Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page, a pretty young well-to-do thing with ambitions to become a prima ballerina. At the beginning of the picture, you would be doing well to like her. She is sweetly pretty, but the picture painted of a spoilt little rich girl who may very possibly pout like an infant if she doesn’t get her own way is forgiveable, until she smiles at Boris for the first time and you know, right away, that this little rich girl displays only the best things that money and privelege would encourage. Shearer plays Vicky as focused and ambitious but respectful and even fearful of these new experiences into which she is tossed.

Her rise to stardom is largely due to Boris’ hand, guiding her, coaxing performances out of her. Walbrook’s enviable skill here is not ever allowing the audience to know whether he loves her or just passionately wants to benefit from basking in the glow of her brilliance.

These two are joined by a composer, barely out of university, Julian Craster. (Marius Goring) He takes a position as orchestral coach when offered by Lermentov, prior to Vicky getting a part in the ballet and when she arrives, he has already written his own score ‘The Red Shoes’, which Boris feels Vicky would be perfect to play as the lead, when she has earned the right.

Julian and Vicky fall in love and Boris is apoplectic with rage and fires Cranster from his company. When he does, Boris’ protegee threatens to leave, following the now abandoned composer and soon-to-be husband.

It’s all very lar dee dar, if we’re honest about it. Lots of posh toffs with plums in their mouths, enjoying the fine arts. If Black Swan was inspired by it, then you can see why. Effectively, you can make comparisons with every dance themed movie made since this and cite The Red Shoes as their inspiration. From Burlesque to A Chorus Line to even Showgirls. They all borrow greatly from the plot here, even if none of them do it quite as well and Powell & Pressburger do here.

It is grand, colourful and admittedly difficult to ignore, whether you’re a lover of ballet or not. There are extended scenes of dance that The Archers insisted upon, thinking there was not enough of them in the screenplay and either that will work for you or it won’t. Personally, I was more moved by the story than the fine footwork, so it didn’t work as well for me, but this was more than made up for by the excellent acting performances by all, but especially by Walbrook who was simply electric.

It is no surprise that The Red Shoes has been cited by luminaries such as Martin Scorsese as being one of his personal favourites though whether it’s deserving of its place in the BFI top ten British films ever made, well, I would have to say that such a compliment maybe a little (if only a little) kind.

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