THE RED SHOES
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Anton Walbrook, Moira
Shearer, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine, Albert Bassermann,
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 134 Minutes
Release Date: July 20, 2010
“Why do you want to dance?”
“Why do you want to live?”
“Well, I don't know exactly why...but I must.”
“That's my answer, too.”
The Red Shoes was one of those immensely happy discoveries for me as a critic many years ago. I think I rented it simply because it was a Criterion offering. I knew none of the stars, and I'm pretty sure I hadn't even heard the names Powell and Pressburger at the time.
I've since greatly corrected both of those faux pas, and I owe it all to one of the richest and most entrancing movie going experiences of my career. The Red Shoes is perfection in every sense a movie can be...terrific story, superb cast, artistic boldness...not to mention, it has to be one of THE most beautiful Technicolor films ever produced.
It was P&P's follow-up to Black Narcissus, a movie that also deserves every single compliment I just paid The Red Shoes. The success of the previous film gave the duo the courage and finances necessary to bring an even bigger and more artistically daring production to the screen. And if Narcissus was a striking blow to British cinema traditions of movies about war and polite society, The Red Shoes would go even further by immersing itself in an art form that could easily inspire yawns from the movie going public...namely, the ballet.
Boris Lermontov (Walbrook, in an unforgettable performance) is the best in the world at what he does. His ballet company is world famous...if you make it into his troupe, you are also the best in the world at what you do. Many try to win his attention, but few earn a look of praise from his critical eye.
One such hopeful is Victoria Page (the elegant Shearer), who is thrown before Lermontov clumsily by her aunt. Refusing to let her audition, but sensing something special about the girl, he invites her to a rehearsal to...well, not even SHE is sure why.
Lermontov's ballet company has just premiered a successful new show composed by a professor, but there is a problem...it seems the unscrupulous teacher has stolen the material from one of his most gifted students, Julian Craster (Goring). When Lermontov learns of the infraction, he invites Craster to play some more of his original works for him, then offers him a small job as an orchestra coach.
Two newcomers in an exciting world of art, drama, and well-established stars, both on the stage and behind it. Each has the opportunity of a lifetime, and each struggles to make the most of his or her talent in small roles. And above it all is Lermontov...brilliant, ruthless, with an eye for nurturing true talent and an ability to squelch it if it doesn't conform to his very exact yet undeniably successful vision.
The centerpiece of the film is the ballet of The Red Shoes...based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, it finally gives composer Julian and dancer Vicky the chance to shine, and when these two talents come together, they help bring the world of the Lermontov Ballet to heights even Boris never conceived of. But when the two rising stars begin to fall in love, it threatens all, especially Lermontov's strict ideal that to be the best at what you do, you must sacrifice everything else for it.
I have to say more about that centerpiece...it's a remarkable stretch of film that shows the courage of Powell and Pressburger. How many filmmakers would bring their story to a lengthy pause to give us an incredible production of a fully realized ballet? And not just any ballet...this is not a PBS special that simply films what happens on the stage. The duo make some bold creative choices in elevating the ballet into a realm of pure fantasy, using film to show what could never be shown on stage. In other words, we are not seeing the dance in real form, but a heightened sense of how it might play out in the minds of the spectators.
It's the kind of creative choice that could easily backfire in a hundred different ways, but instead triumphs in a hundred ways that I could scarcely imagine. It's a work of sheer beauty, thanks to the amazing music, the production design, the cinematography by Oscar winner Jack Cardiff, the bold direction of Powell and Pressburger, and the incredible grace and talent of Moira Shearer. In this role, she not only reminded the world that she was a top ballet dancer, but proved she was a true actress and movie star as well.
The story builds toward a startling climax and conclusion as Vicky becomes the object of desire of two men...one who loves her, one who sees everything she can be, but neither one really seeing her for who she really is. All I can say is the moment the movie ended for me that first time, I was emailing everyone I could think of to tell them they HAD to see this movie. Sadly, I'm not sure anyone took my advice.
So, now I have a chance to try again, this time with a public review. The Red Shoes is an extraordinary cinematic offering that deserves to be on any list of greatest movies ever made. It opened my eyes to the incredible world of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and has enriched my life both as a critic and as a fan of motion pictures.
I've seen many impressive high definition offerings, many of which also came from Criterion, but not many have made me want to leap from my comfortable couch and applaud. The Red Shoes very recently got the full scale restoration it needed and deserved; a painstaking process for a Technicolor film because it involved the cleaning and alignment of three different strips of film for every frame.
The results, however daunting and expensive, were well worth it. The Red Shoes bursts from the screen with a vibrancy and beauty that might possibly even exceed what original 1948 audiences saw. Frame after frame made me want to just pause the disc and drink in all the wondrous detail and rich beautiful color, all the while wishing I could just climb into the screen and enter that amazing world. If you've seen it before, or if you haven't, you are in for a remarkable and unforgettable treat.
Jack Cardiff demonstrates why he's one of the most legendary of all color cinematographers with the imagery he captured in this film, and Criterion demonstrates what Blu-ray is truly capable of by being so faithful to his vision. In fact, I would like to propose that from now on, the best Blu-ray offerings should be re-named Cardiff-rays.
The uncompressed mono offering is one of the best of its kind I've heard, as the remarkable music score from Brian Easdale gives the track plenty of dynamic range and beautiful potency. Everything else mixes and balances well against the music; dialogue has no issues and the overall presentation is quite clean for its age.
The Red Shoes starts with an introduction from Martin Scorsese discussing the restoration of the film, along with many before/after examples. Then Mr. Scorsese participates in a commentary track along with historian Ian Christie, featuring interviews with Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Brian Easdale and Jack Cardiff. It's a wonderful and informative listen.
There is a profile documentary on the making of the film, a 2009 interview with Michael Powell's widow and Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker on her late husband and the restoration of the film, stills and behind-the-scenes photos, pictures of Martin Scorsese's personal collection of memorabilia from the film, a trailer, an animated short based on the original storyboards, and Jeremy Irons reading from a Powell and Pressburger novelization of the film.
Finally, a beautiful booklet offers new essays and discussions of the restoration.
Criterion has triumphed and trumped all expectations with this spectacular Blu-ray release. The Red Shoes shows fans everything they need to know about Technicolor, as well as everything they need to know about how classic films SHOULD be presented on Blu-ray. Unquestionably a must-see in every way imaginable.