Reviewing Darren Aronofsky’s ballet-melodrama Black Swan, some critics trotted out comparisons with The Red Shoes (1948) and The Turning Point (1977). But the new film’s real ancestor is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Both films feverishly delineate the mental and physical deterioration of a young woman, and both, far from exploring psychological turmoil, simply goose us with the morbid thrill of sharing their heroines’ increasingly grotesque delusions. Though Polanski may have lacked compassion, he knew his craft and vividly conveyed the many stages of a downward spiral—from mere frigidity and sexual confusion through murderous frenzy ending in catatonia. The Daily Mail’s verdict was just: “An unashamedly ugly film, but as a lynx-eyed view of a crumbling mind it is a masterpiece of the macabre.”
Not so Black Swan. This is the story of an up-and-coming ballerina, Nina Sayers, in a New York City troupe. Cast by her manipulative and lecherous choreographer as both virtuous Odette and evil Odile in Swan Lake, she tries to obey his prompting to explore her dark side. Sexual fantasies and horrible sights ensue. A rival dancer incites paranoia, Nina’s body psychosomatically festers, the choreographer morphs into the ballet’s evil magician, Von Rothbart, and our heroine splits in two and makes love to herself. All this is Symbolism 101 that, given a proper dramatic arc, might have yielded lurid dividends. But, like an incompetent artillery officer who fires before the enemy is in view, director Aronofsky bombards us prematurely with weird sights, lurid lighting, and grotesque makeup and special effects. Poor Natalie Portman as Nina never gets a chance to show dramatic range since Aronofsky has frozen her face in a mask of masochistic agony. Worse, he has turned the character’s entire world into a torture chamber, with every female dancer a snarky bitch, every backstage assistant a glowering presence, every male in view (dancers, waiters, subway commuters, guys in a bar) a lecherous creep, and her own mother a smothering counterpart of the ballet’s Queen Mother. Granted, we are supposed to be witnessing the fantasies of a diseased mind, but the movie is rife with paranoia in its first half hour, so where can the subsequent ninety minutes go? How can the heroine descend into madness when she’s already mad?
I’m guessing that, like a camper focusing the rays of the sun through a magnifying glass to ignite flames, Aronofsky is trying to capture the bulimic, self-mutilating stage that some adolescent girls go through by focusing on a dancer who, because of the exigencies of her profession, has become obsessive about her body. But if I’m right about this, why is there such a striking lack of compassion in this movie? Why does the camera feast ghoul-like on the horrors visited on a beautiful female body? In his previous feature, The Wrestler, Aronofsky evinced sympathy for the beefy mauler played by Mickey Rourke. Here the director treats us like wrestling fans; he thinks we just want a freak show.
If Black Swan uses the ballet milieu to tell a psychosexual horror story, The Fighter takes on the world of boxing in order to stage a family drama. This is the (more or less) true story of Micky Ward, a seemingly mediocre welterweight of the 1990s who rose to contend for his division’s crown. But the movie’s most stirring battles take place inside the Ward home in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Matriarch Alice has produced nine children—seven daughters (that’s an estimate, since the girls seem to multiply from scene to scene like Star Trek’s tribbles) and two sons, Micky and Dicky. For Alice, the family is the fortress that keeps the rest of the world at bay, and no outsiders need apply. She has blinded herself to the fact that Dicky, once as promising in the ring as Micky, has ruined himself with crack cocaine and petty crime. Worse, she insists that Dicky alone can train his brother, though it’s clear that the addict’s shenanigans are distracting Micky from training. When Micky falls in love with the compassionate yet tough Charlene, who can give him exactly the emotional support he needs, the mother and sisters treat the fiancée like a rat trying to sneak into the grain supply. The question then becomes, will the contender have the guts to exchange smothering familial love for Charlene’s bracing brand? Must the tie that binds also be the chain that hobbles?
That would be dramatic enough, but the story deepens and other questions arise. Whatever his flaws, Dicky does seem to understand something fundamental about his brother’s technique and can give him pointers that apparently no one else can. Furthermore, since rejecting his brother would tear Micky apart, wouldn’t the emotional toll put a strain on his fighting?
The writing is taut and the direction adroit, but what this essentially familial drama needs above all is convincing acting, and this it gets. Though a bit over the top at times, Christian Bale makes it clear that drug abuse has turned Dicky into not a tragic wreck but a comic one who can still charm those who have grown up with him. How thoroughly this British actor has transformed himself into an all-American loser. It’s not just the convincing accent but the posture and gait that convey a coddled boy’s moral spinelessness, a crackhead’s jittery menace, and a once-dedicated athlete’s pride. Melissa Leo makes Alice a credible monster, which means she seizes on those moments when Alice isn’t a monster. Sharing the screen with the bravura of Leo and Bale, Mark Wahlberg has the daunting task of keeping Micky the center of the story, but he succeeds by keeping an inner flame going. He pushes his tough, stoic mug through the scenes of squabbles and rancor, always keeping us aware that this nondemonstrative man is going through hell. As Charlene, Amy Adams is a wonder, radiating sensuality, compassion, resentment, vulnerability, and moral iron, sometimes by turns and sometimes all at once.
If I’ve given my more bloodthirsty readers the impression that The Fighter is all domesticity and no ringside action, let me note that though director David O. Russell skims Micky’s earlier fights, the climactic bout in London, combining hand-held camerawork with elliptical editing, is the most realistically exciting movie boxing match I’ve ever seen. Rocky Balboa’s many combats pulled me to the edge of my seat, but The Fighter does that without ever losing credibility.
In the 1930s, while preparing the title role for Josef von Sternberg’s production of I, Claudius (a movie never completed), Charles Laughton heard King George VI trying to deliver a speech on the radio. “That’s him!” Laughton shouted. “That’s Claudius!” For, like the Roman emperor, the king was a despised child of a haughty family and grew up dutiful, gentle, intelligent, and tongue-tied. Out of George VI’s struggle to speak eloquently to his people as Hitler’s war loomed, director Tom Hooper and writer David Seidler have crafted a satisfying though oddly deceptive movie, The King’s Speech.
While speech therapist Lionel Logue perceives the psychological nature of the problem, the then-prince (nicknamed “Bertie”) recoils from what he regards as prying. At this point it would seem that a psychological battle of wills should ensue, a sort of Masterpiece Theatre version of In Treatment. But no, Logue respects Bertie’s reticence and subjects him only to physical exercises and vocal tricks. The real drama emerges not from psychological duels but social maneuvering. Logue turns out to be a much more complex individual than the early scenes indicate. And when certain facts emerge about the therapist’s past, Bertie nearly terminates the sessions. While trying to regain the royal confidence, Logue reveals even more complexity because his motives are mixed. Professional pride and sincere desire to help a fragile, likable client play a part. But, above all, Logue knows that success with a future occupant of the throne will be the making of his hitherto patchy career.
Accolades have been heaped on Colin Firth as the prince, a role for which he has devised a bearing and gait as constipated as his diction. It’s an excellent job, yet it somehow merits the euphemism employed by used-car salesmen: previously owned. Firth has been warming up for Bertie throughout his career, since nearly every part he’s played has been an example of the uniquely British art of social self-strangulation. I became more interested in Geoffrey Rush’s Logue. When the therapist succeeds in emptying all of Westminster Abbey so that he and the king can use it as a practice room, he remarks, “I can’t believe I’m walking on [the remains of] Chaucer and Handel and Dickens.” But the light in his eyes tells us that he does believe—and revels in it. In real life pertinacious careerists can also be nice guys, but in movies, they are invariably monsters. Rush gives us an amusing and gratifyingly down-to-earth exception.
About the Author
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.