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The Red Shoes
Magill's Survey of Cinema; 15th June 1995

The writing and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced one of their finest films with this story of a talented ballerina, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), who is forced to choose between her love for a young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and the successful career offered to her by her mentor, Lermontov (Anton Walbrook).

The Red Shoes is a visually splendid and captivating film about ballet and its special world. Its high point is a long, imaginatively filmed ballet, the story of which parallels that of the film as a whole. The ballet, the striking imagery, the exciting color cinematography, the beautiful dancing, and the exotic behind-the-scenes atmosphere all mesh to produce a consistently fascinating film.

The theme of The Red Shoes -- Love or Art, Career or Marriage -- is developed in the interwoven stories of three people. Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is a struggling composer and conductor, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is the tyrannical director of the Lermontov Ballet, and Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) is a dedicated young ballerina. Her character is the focal point of the film, the flame around which the two male leads revolve and to whom they are irresistibly drawn.

For a new ballet, "The Red Shoes," Lermontov has chosen Julian to compose and conduct the music and Victoria to dance the leading role. As they rehearse, Julian and Victoria become completely immersed in the ballet. Even when they are not rehearsing, they discuss the music. Julian tells Victoria that nothing matters but the music -- that she can become a bird or a flower if she listens to the music and follows it. Everything in the well-paced, closely knit script builds up to this ballet, which runs for more than fifteen minutes and is the true climax of the film. Because the stories of the three main characters are symbolically acted out in the ballet, it takes on mythic and dramatic overtones that link it to the rest of the film as well as being complete in itself.

Based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the film tells the story of a young girl who wants a new pair of shoes to go to a ball. She goes to a shoemaker who gives her a pair of magic red shoes. After the ball the girl is tired of dancing and wants to go home, but the red shoes are not tired and go on dancing; despite the girl's frantic efforts, she cannot take them off. Time, love, and life rush by, and still she must dance, until eventually she dies. Then the red shoes are removed by the shoemaker who again offers them for sale.

"The Red Shoes" ballet uses filmic devices to create a true cinema-ballet, one that could never have been performed in a theater. Visually exciting in its color, movement, and special effects, it begins with a red spotlight on the proscenium arch, shown in long-shot, as if the viewer were sitting in the middle rows of a theater. After this opening, the ballet itself is shown mostly in medium shots and often uses special effects and close-ups. For example, Victoria jumps into the red shoes and they magically tie themselves on, and close-ups of Victoria's fantastically exaggerated makeup are used to heighten the dramatic intensity.

As the ballet progresses, characters in it suddenly turn into Lermontov and Julian. A newspaper blowing across the floor changes into a man then back into a newspaper. Julian steps out of the orchestra pit onto the stage to become the prince in the ballet; the dancers turn into flowers, then into birds (recalling Julian's words to Victoria during rehearsals), and the applause of the audience is shown as waves crashing against the stage. These cinematic devices are used to show what is in the mind of the ballerina while she is dancing. The ballet is an overwhelming success and a personal triumph for Victoria; and Lermontov tells her that he foresees a great future for her if she is willing to make sacrifices. As the ballet company's tour continues, the friendship between Victoria and Julian deepens into love. When Lermontov learns of the romance, he is enraged because Julian has dared to interfere with his plans for Victoria. He dismisses Julian; and, forced to choose between love and art, Victoria leaves the company and marries Julian. After their marriage, Julian gains recognition as an important young composer, but Victoria has few opportunities to dance.

Finally, Lermontov persuades Victoria to come back to dance "The Red Shoes" ballet again. Just before the performance, Julian arrives and demands that Victoria leave with him immediately, but Lermontov insists that she cannot walk out on the performance. Distraught and confused, she bursts into tears. When Julian leaves, Lermontov believes that he has won, that she has chosen art over love. But the now hysterical Victoria, still wearing her ballet costume, runs down the steps of the Opera House and plunges off the balcony into the path of an approaching train. Though it is not clear whether her death is an accident or suicide, Victoria dies tragically, as does the girl in "The Red Shoes" ballet.

Most of the film is well-paced and engrossing, but after the ballet sequence it slows down and becomes somewhat flat. The ending is too melodramatic to be effective and seems to originate more from the scriptwriter's desire to make the story of the film parallel the story of "The Red Shoes" than from the motivations of the characters themselves. However, these are the only serious flaws in the script.

The characters, especially Lermontov, are high-strung, and the incidents in the script are frequently melodramatic. This requires the actors to show great emotion and convey the sense of larger-than-life genius without making the characters seem ridiculous.

Walbrook as Lermontov, the arrogant, Svengalilike ballet director, is particularly disciplined (until his final speech announcing Victoria's death) in a part that does not encourage restraint. Goring is impressive in the less showy role of Julian Craster, and Shearer, a talented ballet dancer, is effective and moving as the tragic ballerina.

The Red Shoes was a great artistic and commercial success. It had a direct influence on the success of the first American tour of London's Sadler Wells Ballet and inspired such Hollywood musicals as An American in Paris (1951) and The Band Waggon (1953) to use ballet sequences. Today, the film is still unsurpassed in its vivid evocation of the ballet and its world.

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