Boom! Darren Aronofsky's winged-ballerina thriller Black Swan screened last night at the Venice Film Festival and the reviews are nearly all good: In Contention's Guy Lodge gives it four stars and calls it "boldly deranged and beautifully despairing." "Best film I’ve seen all year," declares Obsessed With Film's Robert Beames. "Aronofsky has made his first masterpiece." Variety's Peter DeBruge says, "Aronofsky seems to be operating in the vein of early Roman Polanski or David Cronenberg at his most operatic." "Alternately disturbing and exhilarating," raves Screen International's Mike Goodridge, "[Swan] is one of the most exciting films to come out of the Hollywood system this year." Also, IndieWire's Todd McCarthy calls it "a Red Shoes on acid," which sounds awesome. So what of the film's star, Natalie Portman, tipped as a contender in this year's crowded Best Actress race?
She's great, allegedly! In the movie, she plays Nina, a ballerina whose all-consuming passion for performing costs her something of a mental breakdown. All critics seem to agree the role is outside of Portman's traditional comfort zone, but she pulls it off.
Portman has never been so cannily cast, nor so cunningly exposed, on screen ... [L]ong a lissome, delicate screen presence, she has sometimes struggled with conveying intensity or purposefulness. Here, the role cleverly forces the actress into her most pinched, peaky mannerisms — even her little-girl voice is piched an octave higher than usual — only to undercut them as the character gradually loses her self-awareness; the resulting performance is as dangerous, and oddly touching, as Portman has ever allowed herself to be.
Centerstage stands Natalie Portman, whose courageous turn lays bare the myriad insecurities genuinely dedicated performers face when testing their limits, revealing shades of the actress never before seen on film.
Black Swan will be warmly received in Venice, Toronto and beyond and it should pirouette all the way to the Oscars next Feb. If the film is ultimately too unsettling to snag main prizes, it has at least one nomination in the bag for lead actress Natalie Portman who gives one of “those” performances, transforming herself after ten months of training into an accomplished ballerina, almost uncomfortable to watch as she consumes her difficult role… Portman is captivating as Nina and not just because of her dancing prowess or her lean, emaciated ballerina’s frame. Like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion or Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, she captures the confusion of a repressed young woman thrown into a world of danger and temptation with frightening veracity.
Portman must now be favourite for the Oscar.
Even The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt, who didn't like the movie nearly as much as everyone else, has this to say about Portman:
Portman, who has danced but is no ballerina, does a more than credible job in the big dance numbers and the tough rehearsals that are so essential to the film. In her acting, too, you sense she has bravely ventured out of her comfort zone to play a character slowly losing sight of herself. It’s a bravura performance. http://nataliaportman.blogspot.com/
Working against the once-nominated (for 2004's Closer) Portman could be Black Swan's scary parts (see the trailer) and sexy bits — she has a love scene with rival ballerina Mila Kunis and another one with herself, apparently — both of which could put off elderly, prudish Academy members (Oscar fact: No actress has ever won for playing a sapphic, deranged, self-touching, wing-sprouting ballerina in a horror movie). Then again, to put it in the most basic possible terms, she's an attractive star challenging herself with a trickier, less glamorous role than she's usually known for, which is the formula for practically every Best Actress victory ever. She's definitely in this race.
So look alive, Jennifer Lawrence, Tilda Swinton, Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Lesley Manville, Michelle Williams, Naomi Watts, Anne Hathaway, Hilary Swank, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Nicole Kidman, Robin Wright, Reese Witherspoon, and Helen Mirren!