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10 Years Later: Black Swan

27 January 21 words: Joanna Hoyes

Joanna Hoyes looks back on this acclaimed psychological thriller...

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis
Running time: 108 minutes

I defy anyone to listen to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and not be wholly enthralled. Whether the ballet is your thing or not, there can be no denying that the emotion, depth and tragedy found at the heart of this world-renowned music is utterly captivating. The story of Swan Lake is expertly interwoven into Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and all the passion and drama from the original ballet comes pirouetting off the screen in this psychological thriller. 

Natalie Portman (who won the Academy Award for Best Actress) plays Nina, a technically brilliant classical dancer in the New York City ballet company. Nina is an innocent and naïve young woman, largely due to her overprotective mother who still tucks her in at night in her child-like bedroom. She auditions for the lead in her company’s production of the eponymous ballet and following a shaky start where she gives a stunning audition for Odette but a poor turn as Odile, she eventually bags the role after a violent kiss with the company director. 

Nina’s sexual oppression results in her inability to fully embody the sensual character of the black swan, Odile. As she struggles with this, a new dancer, Lily, joins the company and she has no problem dancing the far more sexually awakened character of Odile. Mila Kunis portrays Lily beautifully and is the antithesis to Portman’s Nina. 

Fearing for her lead role, Nina soon loses her grip on reality and begins to imagine she has an evil doppelganger; her darker self which she increasingly struggles to contain outside the studio but which still eludes her during rehearsals. She also imagines that after a night out dancing, drinking and taking recreational drugs with Lily that the two share an intense sexual encounter only to awaken the next morning alone, seemingly having imagined the whole thing.

Black Swan brilliantly explores the duality within the human psyche and how we control – or can’t control - the darker half of ourselves

As Nina’s mind becomes more twisted, she endures dark, sadistic hallucinations culminating in a murderous incident halfway through her performance as the Swan Queen in which only one of the talented ballerinas makes it out of the auditorium alive…

Black Swan brilliantly explores the duality within the human psyche and how we control – or can’t control - the darker half of ourselves. In her strive for perfection, Nina drives herself mad trying to balance the two personas of the black and white swan with devastating consequences. We see her evolve from technical but timid child to dangerously determined woman with complete loss of mental control whilst simultaneously reaching her physical and professional peak. 

The choice of costume is cleverly utilised throughout the picture to symbolise Nina’s character development. We initially see her rehearsing in pale clothing symbolising her innocence; this gradually morphs into darker grey tones as we see her mentally unwind and eventually, she dances in full black as the transformation of her narrative arc concludes.

Deranged, creepy and intoxicating, Black Swan is still an impressive watch a decade on with Portman and Kunis giving career defining performances as the battling ballerinas. The evolution from ugly duckling to beautiful swan has never been so exhilarating. 

Did you know? Portman and Kunis took six months to prepare for their roles as professional dancers, with Portman training for 4-5 hours a day to achieve the body and stamina of a real-life ballerina.

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