Despite all the attendant buzz and hype with regard to Winter Olympic mainstays like the Downhill competitions and Men’s Hockey, and upstarts such as Halfpipe and Slope-style, the ‘power behind the throne’ of the network prime-time telecasts is the figure skating and ice dancing competitions. Not only are the competitions dramatic in themselves, but the relatively seamless transition between the performance and the reality of the performers’ lives enhances that drama on an exponential level compared to the other events.
Already the stories this year of Yuzuru Hanyu, Ashley Wagner and the Russians Evgeni Plushenko, Julia Lipnitskaia, Maxim Trankov and his partner on (and off?) the ice Maria Mukhortova, are cases in point.
Although not set on ice, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s classic British film The Red Shoes (1948), available free via FilmOn’s VOD service, is about as timeless a complement to ideal of these competitions as could be found.
Powell and Pressberger present a story within a story, set in and around the mid-20th Century Ballet world of London, Paris and Monaco. Moira Shearer plays the privileged Vicky, an ambitious yet unknown ballerina who manipulates a meeting with impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook, playing a character based on real-life Ballet Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev), whom she convinces to taker her on as a student. After he views her in a one-off performance of Swan Lake (this scene obviously studied well by director Darren Aronovsky for his 2010 Black Swan), Lermontov brings her into the company for the performance of his new Ballet, “The Red Shoes,” based on the mid-19th Century Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of vain, yet creative obsession leading to tragic consequences, yet with ultimate spiritual redemption.
The rookie composer for this ballet is Julian Craster (Marius Goring and fantasy spills into ‘reality’, as Julian and Vicky fall in love during the course of the production, which is stunning in itself, featuring actual members of the Royal Ballet), prompting the wrath of Lermontov, which wreaks its vengeance in intricately insidious ways.
The Red Shoes found the directors, known as the ‘Archers’ at the height of their game as a production team, and with their preceding Black Narcissus (1947 — subject for a later article), they created a couple of the greatest British films of all time. Directors as varying as Martin Scorcese and George Romero hail The Red Shoes’ mastery, and American classics such as Singin’ In The Rain and An American In Paris show direct influences from its sublimely balanced story structure.
Powell and Pressberger would take the ‘play within a play’ a bit too far with their subsequent Tales of Hoffman (1951), in which the stage production took over the entire film, the loss of the projection into reality sapping the film of much of its dramatic impact. Prince would suffer a similar fate in the ’80s, when he tried to follow his similarly balanced film Purple Rain (1984) with the (concert film marketed as) staged Sign O’ The Times (1987) and pure-fantasy Graffiti Bridge (1990). It is not a surprise also that he went on to collaborate with Kate Bush on her 1993 Michael Powell/Hans Christian Anderson homage album The Red Shoes (also featuring a long-form video, The Line, The Cross and The Curve, that apart from moments also paled when compared to it’s source material).
As Kate, Prince and Martin know, we are fortunate to have The Archers’ Red Shoes. So take a break from the ice, sit back, and enjoy a bona fide classic original that will send you back refreshed for fantasy.
The Red Shoes is available free via FilmOn:
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