- Black Swan (2010) movie review: As a ballerina on the verge, Natalie Portman delivers a complex, gripping performance in Darren Aronofsky’s flawlessly directed psychological thriller.
- Black Swan was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Natalie Portman), Cinematography (Matthew Libatique), and Film Editing (Andrew Weisblum). Portman was the only winner.
Black Swan movie review: Natalie Portman rises to the challenge in Darren Aronofsky’s best & most mature effort to date
Darren Aronofsky has one of the most remarkable talents not only for crafting impeccable works of fiction but also for framing these works against the backdrop of worlds the average person will never be a part of. At least not in the manner depicted in his movies.
In Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky takes a stylized, brutal eye to the world of drug addiction. In The Wrestler, he gives us a human tragedy set in the world of professional wrestling. In Black Swan, he chronicles an individual’s psychological downward spiral in the world of professional ballet.
Arguably the filmmaker’s best effort, Black Swan is undoubtedly his most mature to date.
Nina the ballerina
Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin’s Black Swan screenplay tells the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dancer in a major New York City ballet company.
Following the ousting of the company’s diva, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), company head Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to put on a production of Swan Lake. Nina ends up getting the coveted part of the Swan Queen, even though she is perhaps not the best dancer or the most suited for the role, which requires her to play both the White Swan and the Black Swan.
As the movie progresses, it slowly picks away at the layers of Nina’s life, both at home and at the ballet company.
While at the ballet, Nina keeps mostly to herself. In fact, she doesn’t seem to be friends with any of the other dancers. We get the impression that it’s not because she doesn’t want to, but that her mother (Barbara Hershey) won’t let her.
Nina’s room looks like that of a six-year-old. Did she ever grow up? Was she ever allowed to? We get the feeling her mother is living vicariously through her: She couldn’t accomplish her dreams of being a star dancer, so Nina must do so in her stead.
What makes Black Swan stand out, however, is not its characters or even its screenplay, but its technical and directorial achievements.
This is Darren Aronofsky’s show, and he enthusiastically delivers a full spectacle.
The filmmaker’s crucial feat is the manner in which he peels back Nina’s psyche. Although she’s obviously disturbed from the very beginning, it’s in watching her devolve piece by piece that makes Black Swan such a fascinating experience.
Visceral Natalie Portman
Admittedly, Aronofsky’s psychological thriller is an artistic triumph in no small part as a result of Natalie Portman’s performance. Although I don’t think Portman is an especially great actress, when she rises to the challenge, she does so with visceral force.
Does Nina have what it takes to become the Black Swan?
Her dance instructor is dubious despite giving her the part. Nina believes she can, but she has repressed the side of her required to embody the evil creature.
Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the character is key to both this core plot detail and to our understanding the pressure she feels from every corner of her life. Together, director and star uncover a world of relentless demands, impossible goals, and unbridled ruthlessness.
Leaving it to the imagination
Yet what I like best about Black Swan – more than its flawless direction, spot-on acting, or even its freshness within the horror genre – is what isn’t revealed. What we don’t know. What we, the viewer, can only infer.
By holding back so much about Nina’s childhood, while giving only hints of her relationship with the other girls in the dance company and with her mother – the father is curiously, though perhaps not surprisingly, absent from all this – Aronofsky allows us to construct our own narrative and piece together how Nina Sayers became who she is.
He accomplishes this through both Natalie Portman’s performance and the film’s visual choices: For instance, we only get short glimpses of horror; there’s never a moment to seriously linger on what we’re seeing.
In truth, the most effective horror is oftentimes achieved by withholding, not by revealing. That’s why modern horror filmmakers should definitely check out Black Swan.
As a matter of fact, the director and the screenwriters’ reticence is the reason this review is so vague in its details.
I feel that Black Swan is a movie that must be seen to be truly understood. It’s one of those rare efforts to which no review could really do justice. Even after seeing it twice, I am still grappling with its themes.
In Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky has crafted an ambitious and brilliantly layered work of art that deserves every bit of praise that comes its way.
Black Swan (2010) cast & crew
Director: Darren Aronofsky.
Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin.
From a screen story by Andres Heinz.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Kristina Anapau, Sergio Torrado, Janet Montgomery, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan.
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique.
Film Editing: Andrew Weisblum.
Music: Clint Mansell.
Production Design: Thérèse DePrez.
Producers: Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Brian Oliver, and Scott Franklin.
Production Companies: Protozoa Pictures | Phoenix Pictures | Dune Entertainment | Cross Creek Pictures.
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Running Time: 110 min.
Country: United States.
“Black Swan (2010) Movie Review: Spot-On Natalie Portman in Best Darren Aronofsky Effort” review text © Nathan Donarum; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Black Swan (2010) Movie Review” endnotes
Natalie Portman dominates Best Actress category
Besides her Oscar win, Natalie Portman was named Best Actress at the SAG Awards and the Golden Globes (Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama). She was also the choice of various U.S.-based critics groups (more critics’ awards).
Black Swan had been previously in competition at the Venice Film Festival, but its Best Actress winner was Ariane Labed for Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Greek comedy Attenberg.
Black Swan movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) website.
Winona Ryder and Natalie Portman Black Swan movie images: Niko Tavernise | Fox Searchlight.
“Black Swan (2010) Movie Review: Spot-On Natalie Portman in Best Darren Aronofsky Feature” last updated in October 2022.