Between my junior and senior years of college, I studied abroad in Great Britain and Scandinavia for a month studying the film movements in those regions. I had a great professor who showed us all sorts of terrific old British and European films, introduced me to filmmakers like Bergman, Tony Richardson and Derek Jarman, and in the spectrum of attendees, who vacillated between shopaholics looking for an excuse to visit Hard Rock Cafes in London and folks sincerely interested in learning about international cinema, I was more or less the group's ultimate film nerd.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were two of the filmmakers we learned the most about, although in the span of one month, we covered so many other simultaneously I didn't get to show them my full attention. Since then – a pathetically long 14 years – I've been otherwise occupied with classics like That Darn Cat and Patch Adams, and have devoted far too little time to catchin up on their collective achievements, even if I've since become a hardcore fan of Powell's Peeping Tom.
All of which is why I was especially excited to revisit one of their greatest films, The Red Shoes, when the good folks at Criterion re-released it on Blu-ray. Already a marvel of color and cinematography, I could scarcely imagine how good their classic might look in high definition. But does it still seem as magical and moving some 62 years after its initial release? That's what I was eager to find out in this week's Shelf Life.
The Facts: Released in 1948 in the UK, The Red Shoes was not initially a hit; distributors The Rank Organisation had little money to promote the film, and what promotion they did muster was insufficient and inappropriate for the film's subject matter, which focuses on an ambitious ballerina (Moira Shearer) who finds herself trapped in a power struggle between a domineering impresario (Anton Walbrook) and the man who loves her (Marius Goring).
Subsequently, the film enjoyed a 110-week "limited" run in the U.S. which motivated Universal Pictures to get behind a proper marketing campaign, and it became a commercial success – Powell and Pressburger's biggest, in fact. Meanwhile, the film received five Academy Award nominations, winning two Oscars for Art Direction and Music, and was named by the founders of Technicolor, Herbert T. Kalmus and Natalie Kalmus, as an example of the best use of three-strip Technicolor ever put on film. Interestingly, the film maintains only a 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, thanks to a pan from UK Times critic Kevin Maher, who we heard is also known as "the Armond White of England."
What Still Works: Even though I'll admit I'm not a huge fan of ballet – there's not nearly enough "serving" happening – I can imagine few other films depicting the dance form as compellingly as Powell and Pressburger capture it here. The story of course revolves around the creation and presentation of these great, huge shows, and yet the film never overshadows its musical foundations – be they composing or choreographing – in order to amplify the dramatic momentum. It helps that the writing-producing-directing team hired dancers who could act rather than actors who could dance, particularly with the choice of Shearer as the film's tragic heroine, Vicky Page, but all of the characterizations are so rich that the world feels immersive, interesting and evocative no matter how much or little one cares for dance or ballet outside The Red Shoes.
In particular, Walbrook has the toughest role to bring to life as Boris Lermontov, the brilliant, demanding impresario who engineers Vicky's success and his own failure. Watching him in early scenes, he's the sort of jerk we kind of like in spite ourselves, dancing delicately on that edge between total *sshole and roguish, shrewd charmer, and this balance is maintained brilliantly throughout the film until we realize – like he does himself – that his intractable point of view is as damaging to Vicky and her eventual husband, Julian, as it is self-destructive to himself. But Shearer is brilliantly delicate herself as the willful but never headstrong Vicky, a young woman for whom dancing is akin to breathing, and who learns too late that Lermontov's hand can be as constrictive as it is helpful.
And although he comparatively has the least to do in this three-way power struggle, Goring is also terrific as Julian, a young man with sharp enough instincts to parlay the discovery of plagiarism into a well-deserved job opportunity, and exerts a real amount of authority on screen and in Vicky's life even compared to the oppressive power of Lermontov. But as a whole the ensemble is brilliant and understated, finding grace notes even in broad strokes, and turns a variety of showtune clichés into multidimensional characters who interact and affect the emotional tenor of this melodramatic but remarkably powerful story.
What Doesn't Work: There's really precious little in the film that does not work – and in fact, there's nothing artistically that fails to live up to a consistent, breathtaking standard of quality and execution. But for contemporary audiences, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that some viewers see Vicky's third-act quandary, whether to stay faithful to her husband or return to the stage – and further, choose between the two men who control her life – as itself an oppressive and chauvinist narrative choice.
Truth be told, at the end of the film, Vicky doesn't seem quite enough like a real agent of her destiny, thanks in no small part to Lermontov's self-aggrandizing and yet somehow sincere determination to make her into a star. That she could choose to dance "anywhere" but refuses to do in anything less than the best circumstances seems vaguely hollow, if as she says earlier in the film, what she wants more than anything out of life is "to dance." But I do think that literally every one of these ideas is seeded so subtly and effectively in the entirety of the story that they could only be considered "problems" in the context of contemporary portrayals of gender roles. The rest of the film's beauty and poetry (not to mention dramatic intensity) more than answers any of those anachronistic details.
What's The Verdict: The Red Shoes holds up as a visual benchmark, a narrative triumph, and a vetted and indisputable classic, Kevin Maher be damned. I think that although it's paced and structured differently than contemporary dance films, it would appeal to the same folks who yearn for Step Up movies (myself included) if they had a chance to see it, thanks to its vivid colors, beautiful choreography, and undeniably interesting characters and story. The new Blu-ray does it brilliant justice, giving new volume and brightness to Powell and Pressburger's singular, gorgeous compositions, and a bounty of bonus materials provides even more material to sift through and examine as you immerse yourself in not only the film, but its legacy. But even without all of the bells and whistles of Criterion's amazing high-definition release, The Red Shoes is consummate moviemaking at its absolute best, and it's essential viewing as soon as you are made aware of it; don't waste 14 years, much less 14 minutes, tracking it down.