A ballet dancer is torn between romance and ambition in one of Powell and Pressburger’s most glorious and ravishing Technicolor triumphs.
Dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
1948 | UK | Drama/Romance/Music | 133 mins | 1.33:1 | English & French
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Jean Short, Anton Walbrook
Plot: A young ballet dancer is torn between the man she loves and her pursuit to become a prima ballerina.
Awards: Won 2 Oscars -Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Music; Nom. for 3 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Writing, Best Film Editing; Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
Distributor: MGM / ITV
Subject Matter: Moderate – Passion, Ambition
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: World Cinema Series – National Museum of Singapore
First Published: 3 Nov 2010
The beautiful 35mm restoration of The Red Shoes spearheaded by Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker is a sight to behold. Made in post-war Britain, this hopeful yet tragic drama-musical about a ballet dancer torn between romance and ambition is still one of the best examples of the use of Technicolor.
The glowing primary colors, especially that of bright red, shine exuberantly within the frame of many of the shots, be it the red shoes or the turning red wheels of a cart. The visuals are accompanied by the quite magnificent (but not very memorable) Oscar-winning score, elevating the film into a dream-like fantasy.
Perhaps the most effective directing partnership the world has ever seen, at least in the context of cinema of the forties and fifties, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have given us a number of well-received works such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the latter often thought of by many to be their finest achievement.
Based on the story by Hans C. Andersen, The Red Shoes is given the filmic treatment by Pressburger, who wrote the original screenplay.
“Why do you want to dance?”
As Moira Shearer plays Victoria Page, a promising ballet dancer who is given the opportunity to perform “The Red Shoes”, her life slowly follows the trajectory of the character in Andersen’s book when she falls in love with Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the ballet’s music conductor.
Their relationship is frowned upon by their boss and director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), and this creates a triangular tension that builds up to a tragedy for all parties.
In the film’s most talked-about sequence, the brilliantly choreographed twenty-minute stage presentation of The Red Shoes as performed by the elegant and graceful Shearer, and her co-actors, is a marvel of aesthetic beauty and technical innovation.
Employing a host of special post-production optical effects and through some magnificent art direction, The Red Shoes comes alive because of the rich melding of colors, set design, and orchestrated movement.
“You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”
What is the purpose of life? A character answers, “To live!”; another answers, “To dance!”. The film questions the nature of passion. Can passion, which is of an affective nature, help us to understand the philosophical importance of living?
In the case of Page, she is torn between two passions – that of dancing, and for her lover. When the dilemmatic moment of truth arrives, can one wisely choose one passion over the other?
If I could point out a flaw, the romance between Page and Craster does not seem to be developed to its fullest potential. There are two main reasons: (1) their romance came rather late and abrupt in the film, and (2) there were only a few scenes of them together, albeit one that was quite long – the horse carriage in the night scene.
As a result, the romantic passion between them comes across as more weak than strong; it does not, in my opinion, warrant enough justification for Page to be forced into the romance-ambition dilemma at the end.
I would still give The Red Shoes my recommendation though; it is funny, entertaining, and features several great lead performances. From a purist perspective, it also captures cinematographically (in glorious Technicolor) a period in the 20th century where black-and-white films still reign.