Sir Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes on the big screen

Screened at the British Film Institute, London
November 10, 2023

Screened at the BFI as part of a programme marking the 75th anniversary of The Red Shoes, including an exhibition and the release of a remastered version of that classic, the film of Sir Matthew Bourne’s production puts one in the curious position of watching a film containing a ballet based on a film containing a ballet.

Lez Brotherston, as ever, encapsulates the essence of the work in his set, a revolving proscenium arch and tabs that use the same conceit as Fred Kinney’s set for Michael Frayn’s Noises Off providing a perspective of backstage, onstage and out front.

Bourne references events twenty-five years before the Powell and Pressburger film, including an evocation of Nijinska’s 1922 work Le Train Bleu. This works very well, with ballet director Lermontov, being a thinly veiled version of Diaghilev. Always a strong actor, Adam Cooper, as Lermontov, gives a phenomenal performance that sizzles and seethes the moment he appears.

Dominic North as Julian Craster and Ashley Shaw as Victoria Page
in the stage production of Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes
Photo Johan Persson

Lermontov is the key to The Red Shoes. Understanding his drive and motivations prevents the story from being a melodrama and makes Vicky’s Page’s dilemma visceral. Bourne gives Lermontov a monologue after Page has left the company to follow Craster in a facsimile of the film set, complete with the pillar and sculpture of the foot en pointe. Emotions run over Cooper’s face like the shadow of clouds in a hillside.

Ashley Shaw as Page is no Moira Shearer (not many are!), but her technique is solid enough to combine with genuine charm and good acting to pass muster. Dominic North is a much more likeable Craster than Marius Goring in the Powell and Pressburger. It is easy to see why a very young Vicky would be seduced by him as their ambitions seem to be running in parallel until Lermontov intervenes. The final dilemma becomes one between two men whom Vicky loves for very different reasons rather than a fight for possession between two dominant and domineering men.

Bourne’s choreography has really matured in this production. He largely resists what sometimes is a tendency towards frenetic and over-busy scenes, although we still have to suffer some irritated jigging with pigeon-pecking necks. There are some strong theatrical moments such as when Lermontov holds the red shoes up by their ribbons and then knocks them into a pendulum swing to ‘hypnotise’ Vicky.

Best of all, Bourne manages to pull off the tricky challenge of dealing with what is still the best ballet film ever made both by being faithful to the original and giving it an inner life all of its own. I’m less sure about using the great act of Wilson, Keppel and Betty to suggest a seedy music hall, though. But that’s a minor point in what is a very creditable, very pleasing, production.

Finally, the use of Bernard Herrman’s music was masterly stroke. It has been crafted to fit the ballet extremely well and co-incidentally provides an opportunity to give it a much-deserved audience.