Screened at the British Film Institute, London
November 12, 2023
So, at last, after an exhibition and screening of the film of Sir Matthew Bourne’s stage version, the joy of seeing Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, beautifully re-mastered. It has lost nothing of its power after 75 years. If anything it has gained it.
Anton Walbrook is a hugely underrated actor. In other hands, this could so easily have been a superficial parody of a tyrannical ballet director, but Walbrook oozes charm wrapped around a steel core. Whilst not being a role of the same depth as that of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in Powell and Pressburger’s Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Walbrook nevertheless invests Lermontov with a complexity which perhaps references his own experiences as not only an Austrian refugee but a homosexual, in a curious parallel with Diaghilev.
Moira Shearer may not have left a record of her best dancing roles on celluloid but The Red Shoes ably demonstrates how strong she and others of the time were and belies the suggestion that today’s dancers have better technique.
The Red Shoes is nothing if not a film that shows the realities of a touring ballet company. Glimpses of class demonstrate that the emphasis was on strength through repetition. Albert Basserman as Sergei Ratov is clearly based on Maestro Cecchetti down to his initial scene which re-creates a famous sketch of Cecchetti sitting in a chair and directing class, thumping his cane on the floor to keep time even though here he is the designer. It was in fact his last film, as he died in his native Germany just four years after it was released.
This is very much a film made by exiles and outsiders, including Helpmann (Australian) and Massine (Russian), Tcherina (Russo-French) and of course Emric Pressburger himself (Hungarian). This adds yet another layer to the ballet within a film as so many of the protagonists were wandering gypsies like the touring company they represented and of course the exiles in the Ballets Russes. It gives another perspective to Vicky Page’s desire to join the wanderers and her growing desire to settle down to a life of domesticity with Julian Craster. It is the one-sidedness of this that makes the film so believable and relevant as Lermontov points out: Craster was not prepared to give up his career to follow Page.
The prejudices of the day are reflected in the music students’ contempt for the balletomanes in the opening scenes and vice-versa and in Craster as he leaves the company. Shearer herself turned down the role three times as she was unsure about appearing in a film and was criticised for appearing in something not showing seriousness for ballet.
The ballet that nestles inside the film like a jewel is still stunning. The filmic techniques such as the self-tying red shoes into which the girl is suddenly placed and the dancing newspaper are just as effective and magical as when they first appeared.
As we see the dancers transformed into flowers, birds and clouds we are reminded of Page’s conversation with Craster when he asks her if this is what she imagines when she dances and she replies tartly that it is hard enough to get off the ground as it is without indulging in such fantasies. Could there be a better way of illustrating both the reality and the illusion of ballet? It also reminds us both if the then recent devastations of war and perhaps those that we are again witnessing as the shoes propel the girl through devastated landscapes of dead trees and windswept ruins.
Of course, it is not without glamour. Monte Carlo is after all on the French Riviera and, in 1947, was relatively unspoilt and perhaps little changed since the Ballets Russes toured there in the 1920s. Page is a wealthy socialite and is dressed accordingly. Powell and Pressburger allow themselves the indulgence of her sweeping up a long, somewhat overgrown and mysterious staircase in a stunning blue gown and cloak as she first approaches Lermontov’s mansion even though she is then banished from her intended party to rest before her new leading role. The birthday party scene where Lermontov first learns of Page and Craster’s romance was even echoed in the ballet film White Nights.
Ballet in 1947 was on the cusp of emerging from the toil of the 1930s, at home represented by Marie Rambert and the tiny Mercury Theatre which was the crucible of the modern British ballet renaissance.
There is another opportunity for a superb piece of filmic conceit as the camera blurs and rotates mirroring Page’s spotting as she pirouettes as Odile, and some humour as it is of course raining cats and dogs outside in contrast to the glorious sunshine and sea in Monte Carlo. We get a glimpse of old Covent Garden too as Shearer picks her way over the discarded vegetables in the gutter and luxury cars are chauffeured between lorry loads of cabbages.
Page’s final suicide, driven by the bullying of Craster and Lermontov, shows a real inner turmoil. Shearer may be grimacing in a stilted horror-film manner, but we see that it is the red shoes that are dragging her backwards towards her doom as they epitomise her mental state. This is not a calculated, well-planned act but an acute trauma that leaves the final question hanging in the air: is creating truly great art compatible with the quotidian demands of life? Perhaps not even in 2023.
The remastered The Red Shoes is in cinemas from December 8, 2023. Visit www.bfi.org.uk for dates and screenings.
An exhibition, The Red Shoes, Beyond the Mirror, is at the BFI, Southbank, London to January 7, 2024.