“real and imaginary combine and overlap in a visually stunning 108 minutes that knock you sideways with their madness”

Black Swan left me stunned. I was bowled over by this intense, engrossing and disturbing psycho-drama from veteran film maker Darren Aranofsky. Black Swan chronicles the descent of a woman living under constant claustrophobic pressure and striving for a perfection seemingly impossible to attain. Real and imaginary combine and overlap in a visually stunning 108 minutes that knocks you sideways with its madness. The finale will stay with you long after the credits roll, and the cinematography is up there with the best – a feast of black and white, moody, intense and disturbing shots that convey the fracturing of the lead’s personality.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a member of a New York ballet group, and gets her chance as its leading lady when given the role of the Swan Queen in an upcoming performance of Swan Lake. But to play the role she has to master both the innocence and fragility of the ‘White Swan’, and the passion and intensity of the ‘Black Swan’. What follows is the story of a woman’s descent – and simultaneous artistic elevation – as she strives for perfection amid threats real and imagined.

Nina lives in a claustrophobic world vividly conveyed by Matthew Libatique’s expert cinematography. Her home life is oppressive.  She has a mother (Barbara Hershey) who herself had a ballet career, stalled upon become pregnant, and now transfers her disappointment into the obsessive coaching of her daughter. Nina’s room is decorated with child like toys and stuffed animals, and a wind up music box that plays the theme to Swan Lake – suggesting her mother’s mission to keep her focused and child-like. At work, her quest to engage with the “Black Swan” role is started by ballet director Thomas’s (Vincent Cassel) direction to ‘touch herself’. Then, as her alternate Lily (Milas Kunis) appears on the scene, her influence on Nina leads to a drug-fuelled club night and a lesbian scene that is one of a number of nods to Mulholland Drive. This encounter (thus unsurprisingly) turns out  to be imagined, and the next day – when Nina arrives at the ballet studio – Lily is practising to be her alternate. Lily thereafter vies with the presence of Nina’s disturbing doppelganger as a source of suspicion.  Nothing seems to be what it appears, and as Lily’s personality fractures more and more the fantastical operatic qualities of the movie come to the fore in a gripping and truly climactic finale.

The cast is well chosen – Winona Ryder as the dropped older star who makes way for Nina, Barbara Hershey as the overbearing, depressed and demanding mother, Vincent Cassel as the slightly sleazy but well intentioned director, and Milas Kunis as the sensual and seductive alternate who’s motives and intentions are never quite obvious. But the film belongs to Natalie Portman – her performance as its lead is nothing short of fantastic. A second viewing may yield a more considered review, but the climax to this film – the last 20-30 minutes- is what makes you leave the cinema with your head reeling – it is the most intense and downright mad climax to a movie that I’ve seen.

Black Swan is a disturbingly gripping psychodrama, and fantastic entertainment. It deserves all the accolades it will undoubtedly receive.