FILM (1948)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am

The Red Shoes
Marius Goring, Jean Short, Gordon Littmann
Director: Michael Powell

'Why do you want to dance?' ballet svengali Boris Lermontov asks dancer Vicky Page near the start of The Red Shoes. 'Why do you want to live?' the ballerina fires back.

British director Michael Powell's dance masterpiece is neatly summed up in this exchange. Powell's film, written by his producer and collaborator Emeric Pressburger, charts true artists' need to create to the exclusion of everything else - even if those artistic endeavours are detrimental to other areas of their lives. From this material Powell fashions an artistic treatise masquerading as a popular musical.

The red shoes of the title refer to a ballet within the film that heralds the dancer's artistic flowering. The ballet is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen which features a pair of malignant and magical red shoes. In the fairy tale, a young girl buys the shoes from a demonic shoemaker to wear at a dance. The red shoes help her dance brilliantly - but at a price: they won't let her stop. The young girl finally exhausts herself and dies.

Powell uses Andersen's tale as a metaphor for artists whose need to create leads to lives filled with tragedy.

Powell is generally considered to be Britain's greatest filmmaker. Films such as A Canterbury Tale and A Matter of Life and Death show a sensitive and sophisticated understanding of the British character. The Red Shoes is his most well-known film.

The story was originally conceived by British super-producer Alexander Korda in the 1930s as a film about ballet genius Nijinsky. The second world war got in the way, and Powell and Pressburger took on the project in 1946.

Pressburger changed the story to focus on Sergei Diaghilev, mentor of the famed Ballet Russes, a company which focused equally on dance, theatre and music to create a kind of 'total ballet'.

Pressburger and Powell's story is beautifully precise. Vicky Page - played by Moira Shearer (below), then an up-and-coming ballet dancer - joins the famed Ballet Lermontov. Lermontov (played with sensitivity by Anton Walbrook) is an artistic fascist who demands total commitment from his artists. Even romantic relationships are frowned upon, as they distract from the dancers' focus on their art.

Lermontov sees genius in Page, and gives her the lead in a new ballet called The Red Shoes. She performs marvellously, and Lermontov realises she can become one of the ballet greats. But then she has the temerity to fall in love.

Story and message are well-honed, but the film succeeds equally because of its cinematic qualities. The Technicolor cinematography is a symphony in its own right, as are the stunning sets. The ballet was choreographed by dancer Robert Helpmann, who also plays the company's male lead.

The Red Shoes' ballet scenes form one of the highlights of British cinema. British films, unlike their European counterparts, are usually hidebound by that country's obsession with the stage and literature. But The Red Shoes' dance sequences are a soaring expressionist masterpiece. These alone would guarantee Powell's inclusion in the pantheon of master filmmakers.