Review: ‘Black Swan’

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers

After leaving the cinema, my friend asked which film I would say was better: ‘Black Swan’ or ‘The King’s Speech’. Not an easy choice: both fantastic, and both as different from one another as it’s possible to be. But, after deliberating, I knew the answer: Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ won for it’s sheer ability to intoxicate and psychologically invade its viewers’ minds.

The premise is that ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is chosen to play both the delicate White Swan and the devilish Black Swan in director Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassell) new production of ‘Swan Lake’. Tortured by the desire to be perfect and by threats of having her role taken from her, Nina’s journey from becoming a white swan to embracing her inner black swan is absolutely riveting.

Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis’ (Lily) dedication to the film was incredibly obvious: both had trained well, and are reported as having lost weight though their ballerina training. They had an intense chemistry, which helped the plotline enormously, as it was impossible to tell until the very end whether Lily was who Nina thought her to be: the clash of the swans caused a wonderful sense of confusion that caused a yearning for answers. Equally, Cassell’s performance was just as riveting: his ease as slipping between mentor and seducer highlighted the depths of Nina’s transformation, by pushing her to effortlessly metamorphosise from one character to another.

The musical score was beautiful, bringing the passion of the ballerinas, and the psychological decay of Nina, to tense and entrancing heights. It underlined what we knew, and subtly guided towards questions and conclusions, bringing the film to its dramatic climax perfectly. The seamless movement between reality and fantasy led to a fitting resolution, where Nina’s fate was probably the only suitable outcome to the film after the torments the audience had witnessed. Portman’s performance was stunning: she was delicate and fragile, but convincingly moved to dark and devious without losing any of her momentum. With Kunis’ support, Nina’s inner struggle was perfectly framed within the reality she had been separated from unknowingly. Barabara Hershey, as Nina’s long-suffering mother Erica, definitely needs credit in this respect as well: the guilt felt when realising she wasn’t the one at fault, but the one trying to fix the damage single-handedly complemented the dawning realisation of Nina’s descent into decay.

‘Black Swan’ was a creepy, wonderful and haunting film, and I, for one, am desperate for an encore.

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Review: ‘The King’s Speech’

Colin Firth as George VI

Nominated for fourteen BAFTAs , twelve Academy Awards, and seven Golden Globes, ‘The King’s Speech’ has left audiences speechless. With a simple yet moving plotline, Coling Firth’s King George VI is able to create and maintain a depth of character that will leave you riveted.

The story is simple enough: King George V passes away, leaving his son to become King Edward VIII, only for him to abdicate to marry the twice-divorce Wallis Simpson and leaving an unsettled Albert to ascend to the throne. The issue being, Bertie has never been royally built: his stammer, alongside his other habits beaten out of him at an early age, has cost him both the publics, and his own, confidence. His dutiful wife Elizabeth pushes him to try Lionel Logue, speech therapist, who insists on unorthodoxy to tackle the root of the problem, and helps Bertie lead up to one of the most important moments of his regal life.

The best bit about the plot is how unwavering it is: the writers are dedicated to Bertie’s story, and at times when they could have been distracted (with Wallis Simpson, war…) they only acknowledged their periphery before returning to their tunnel vision, and while enough is incorporated to keep the story afloat, it is all kept in to ensure Bertie’s story is fully and beautifully explored. One of Colin Firth’s most touching moments as the wonderful Bertie is telling his daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, the story of the royal penguin, acting as a silent advocate for love conquering all and covering over the fault lines to smooth the way for their own private lives. Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth, is wonderfully portrayed by the beautiful Helena Bonham Carter, whose strength and solidarity with her husband show a united front, helping to collect fragments of the future king’s life in order to provide unity and faith in his abilities. This was also seen in the selfish and impulsive Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), whose taunting of ‘B-B-B-Bertie’ leaves both Firth’s character and the audience speechless: cruelty comes in many forms, but it strikes hardest when loved ones knock us down. It’s horrific to witness the lack of familial support when Elizabeth has been attempting to prop up Bertie’s courage, although Edward’s act of dishonour frames Bertie’s relationship with Logue perfectly. While Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue has been silently breaking down barriers, this incident pushes their friendship together to unify their desires, leading to Logue’s place of honour at the coronation (again, something that could have become it’s own issue with the Bishop’s anger, but dealt with smoothly to continue the story).

Logue and Bertie’s friendship was dealt with brilliantly: it appeared as if from nowhere, despite knowing it would inevitably happen. Logue doesn’t push or force Bertie into action, he sits and accepts his decisions but instantly springs into action when his call comes. Driving through wartime Britain for Bertie was a brilliant finale to this ever-building relationship, turning the emotional into a physical act to show the lengths he would go through for his friend. His gentle approach isn’t too invasive on the screen, which means the story glides along instead of forcibly feeding us the key information. It also means Logue’s step into unfamiliar territory with regards to Edward is a point of confusion for audience emotions: who do we feel sorry for, the friend spurned for giving advice, or the prince resisting power through fear? Their reunion strengthens the resolve, and heightens Bertie’s bravery and Logue’s nobility: they both needed each other to realise when they were wrong and how to be right.

It’s a stunning film, showing that power isn’t all popular opinion would make it out to be: the King needs support to function and lead with dignity, determination, and above all, belief in the power of your own voice. King George VI deserved to be heard, and it’s a voice everyone should listen to.

Review: ‘About a Boy’ by Nick Hornby

Nicolas Hoult and Hugh Grant in the film adaptation.

Having finally read the book, I can safely say that the film version of ‘About a Boy’ got it spot on: it relates Nick Hornby’s tale of growing up perfectly.

The story is simple enough: Will is thirty-six, Marcus is twelve, and yet the latter is infinitely more adult than the former. Whilst simultaneously learning to grow-up and act their age, Will and Marcus explore issues that monopolise everyone’s lives: from learning that your parents are fallible to finding the special someone who likes you for you.

Hornby’s success comes in his language: he doesn’t try to explain everything – Fiona is depressed, we don’t know why; Will is aimless, yet there’s no reason for his lack of orientation. In fact, the only thing that truly makes sense, ironically, is Marcus: he is defined by the his surroundings – his mother and her eccentricities, his father walking away too quickly, his friends abandoning him to enjoy a bully-free existence…Despite how odd he appears, Marcus is the only character who can be fully explained. This lends legitimacy to Will and Fiona’s stories. They are able to come to their own realisations because Marcus needs them to react to him without him explicitly saying so. The shoes incident is a major example of this – Will can only realise that life isn’t as simple as wearing the right outfits by Marcus being vulnerable, and likewise Fiona can only realise Marcus’ needs when she feels like she’s losing him. It’s more what Marcus leaves unsaid than what he verbalises that enables the characters around him to finally step out of their own bubbles.

The sidestepping of the over-psychological analysis of everything feels like Hornby is stating that life isn’t always definable. By treating Fiona’s suicide as an unspoken threat, and Will’s relationship with Rachel as something that happened as opposed to over-analysing why it happened, Hornby is able to show his readers that life happens whether we like it or not, and that it is up to us to mould ourselves around these events. Telling the story from Will and Marcus’ viewpoints helps to achieve this – the two people who think least are forced to think, which creates intensity within the sometimes minimalistic information we are provided with. For instance, Fiona’s suicide is seen by Marcus as the culmination of Dead Duck Day, and by Will as an oddity occurring outside of his sphere of interest, therefore when it comes to it, both have to extend themselves to understand and cope with such events. Will’s later relationship also shows his inability to verbalise his comprehension of an alien subject – Hornby could undoubtedly talk too much about this, and fully explore the feelings and emotion of each character, but the reader is left with just enough information to think for themselves – after all, isn’t self-expansion the point of the story?

‘About a Boy’ started off, to me, as a simplistic read, but ended up being more intense than I imagined it could be: by using the two central characters with a limited view of life, Nick Hornby is able to expand both their and our horizons. One of the most poignant moments that spelled this out to me was when Rachel told us why she could never just give up on life: it would be awful to miss out.

Review: ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveller's Wife

I must admit, I did this the wrong way around: I watched, and was thoroughly enchanted by, the film of ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ before reading the novel. I’ve been told what a wonderful novel it is, even by the woman who sold me the book, and so I was quite happy to pack it as a holiday read, and it certainly wasn’t a waste of packing space.

The biggest flaw in the film, I found, was Gomez: gone was the cheeky blonde harbouring an unrequited love, and in was someone who frankly hadn’t left my mind as the guy who played Burger in ‘Sex and the City’. I much preferred the former, as it added depth to both Clare’s determination to weather any storms that may have hit her life with Henry, as well as showing the intensity of her grief by highlighting her desperation to recapture anything that could be likened to the intimacy she had shared with Henry.

Clare has to be one of my favourite female characters from a novel, and there aren’t many of those, as normally I find females have to be strong and independent, or submit to a turmoil of emotions. Clare managed to be emotional and strong; independent yet craving the uncontrollable love in her life: in short, she wasn’t perfect, but her flaws were legitimate and forgivable. The betrayal of Charisse seemed unimportant compared to the revelation that Gomez had been, and would later reprise the role of, Henry’s standby: Clare needed a physical form to embody everything she felt emotionally, illustrating her desire alongside her fallibility.

Henry is a character I have less to say about, mainly because I feel he was what he was: someone grasping onto his life with both hands once he found a point for it to centre around. His characters is innately wound up in Clare’s, which Niffenegger makes inherently clear in the title of her novel, which both solidifies and legitimises the hold the pair have upon one another: cause and effect cannot be revealed, because the one cannot be without the other.

The only character I really feel was let down within the novel was Benny: he seemed to start out as one of many pathways Henry felt compelled to take to control his future (or past, as it were), and yet while we’re told enough about him to feel a certain connection (his anger as his ex, Allan, for infecting him with AIDS strikes a chord with the cause and effect side of the novel, for instance), after the wedding and until the New Year party he doesn’t exist. Essentially, he is replaced by the more sage and infinitely more legal Kendrick, even down to his son’s suffering from Down’s Sydrome replacing Benny’s fight for his life. Apart from this, the major characters felt fully rounded and able to add to the three-dimensional view of the main storyline whilst also adding their own history to ensure nothing fell flat in terms of vulnerability, the interlinks between Henry’s life and the lives of those around him, and in substantiating how the individual contributed to the whole picture.

The couple of references to Henry playing Humbert Humbert to Clare’s Lolita is perhaps one of the things that caught my attention more than the other literary references: is it wrong that Henry loves Clare both at thirteen and thirty? In my view, I don’t see it as the same relationship as Lolita had with her guardian – I see Henry as more of a guardian angel, knowing he is acting on behalf of the woman he will love entirely by issuing a protective love to her younger self. The gun incident shows this perfectly, as while Henry knows there are limits to his aiding Clare, he cannot let her go undefended, and his return to the present-day Clare shows the difference between him loving the young Clare by his image, and him loving the older Clare emotionally when he kisses the cigarette burn scar. What I mean to say is, that the love for the younger Clare is based around Henry fulfilling a knight-in-shining-armour role, whereas in his present, Henry has to substantiate this image. The borderline of this is seen when he kisses a sixteen-year-old Clare in anger and she proclaims that it ‘wasn’t very nice’, showing that the physical cannot exist happily without the emotional side.

Audrey Niffenegger has achieved a rare thing, in creating a premier novel that can capture both hearts and minds without being overbearing or underwhelming. Whilst ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ is tragic, it is also softly beautiful, and this combination enables it to show both the whole image, as well as highlighting realistically the many compartments that create this whole, in turn causing the novel to be a timeless classic.