The Red Shoes
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 134 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: July 20, 2010
Review Date: July 4, 2010
Art as life versus art is life is the key to the theme of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s magnificent The Red Shoes. It’s something of a miracle film bringing the world of ballet to the masses but more importantly exploring with such eccentric candor the psyche of the artist: driven, single-minded, inspired, maddening. It’s a film that has maintained its munificent achievements for those in awe of its majesty over more than half a century with its beauty, its passions, and its power still as vibrant and explosive as ever. After seeing The Red Shoes, one never quite judges art of any kind in the same way again.
Impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) runs his ballet company with an iron hand, but his troupe is the best and the world knows it. Into his sphere comes talented dancing newcomer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) and budding composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Lermontov promotes both of his protégés: Victoria to lead dancer after his former prima (Ludmilla Tchérina) chooses marriage over Lermontov’s ironclad rule: nothing comes before art. Craster’s new work called “The Red Shoes” as danced by Victoria is a sensation, and she quickly rises to star billing in the company, but then life gets in the way as it always does: Julian and Vicky fall in love, something they know their master will never tolerate if they choose to stay with the company.
Before The Red Shoes, dance on film had never been shown from so many perspectives: obviously the viewer sees the show from the audience’s point of view, but director Michael Powell also gives us a wing’s eye view of the performance, and in one magnificent moment, we even see the show through the whirling ballerina’s eyes. But the film’s most important achievement is to show us a world where its inhabitants see, eat, drink, sleep, and breathe art; it’s more important than food, than drink, than air. It consumes every waking moment of their lives, until, of course, they must fight to keep from suffocating from it. The struggle between professional and personal lives manifests itself though every moment of the story, and Pressburger’s script emphasizes both the rewards and the sacrifices of such an existence. As for the ground-breaking (for its time and still amazing in its construction and presentation) quarter-hour ballet “The Red Shoes,” it uses the medium of film to present one cinematic wonder after another: it’s surreal in its presentation and haunting in its ultimate achievement. The use of color to capture the varying moods of the piece makes optimum use of the Technicolor camera, the vibrancy and depth of color being unmatched in its day apart from the work Vincente Minnelli was doing at MGM during the same period as this film’s production (see his surreal ballets in Ziegfeld Follies and The Pirate for comparisons).
As for the performances, Anton Walbrook’s commandingly icy Lermontov dominates his every scene. The role based partly on such icons in their fields as Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Korda, Walbrook’s interest in an artist ethereally rather than carnally is palpable and easily one of his greatest performances. Marius Goring has his own vain posturing down pat as the growingly fierce composer while Moira Shearer, a real dancer in a film where pointe dancing could never have been faked convincingly, excels both terpsichorially and with her acting in an exceedingly difficult role. Famed Ballets Russes dancer Leonide Massine, himself a protégé of the real Diaghilev in his younger years, has a ragtag elfin charm and a bristly way with lines that endears him on repeated viewings. Another acclaimed ballet artist Robert Helpmann partners Shearer with tact and poise.
The film’s theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio is rendered faithfully in this transfer with the slight windowboxing which Criterion favors with Academy ratio films on DVD. After a lengthy and costly restoration, the results are mostly magnificent with sharpness superb in the close-ups and color richness and depth very impressive indeed. Black levels are especially wonderful. There are some slight telltale remnants of the mold removal which causes some slight flickering in a couple of bright scenes, and there’s a bit of moiré to be seen on occasion, too. Otherwise, however, it’s a gorgeous transfer, one which should find many enthusiastic adherents. The film has been divided into 25 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track does what it can with very old elements recorded with the fidelity available to the filmmakers at the time of the production. The low end is lacking, of course, and there is some slight hiss to be heard during a few quiet moments during the movie. Apart from those quibbles, however, the film sounds reasonably full, Brian Easdale’s music still impressive enough after more than fifty years to stand the test of time.
Martin Scorsese introduces a restoration featurette showing some impressive before-and-after shots noting the remarkable effort that went into creating the superb transfer on display here. It’s in anamorphic widescreen and runs for 4 ¼ minutes.
A brilliantly accomplished audio commentary blends in host/critic Ian Christie and his astute observations about the movie with recent and vintage interviews from Martin Scorsese, stars Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and composer Brian Easdale.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 2 ½ minutes.
The novelization of The Red Shoes by its producer/writer/directors is read by actor Jeremy Irons and can be chosen as one of the alternative language tracks while the film is running.
The remainder of the bonus features are on disc two in the two-disc set.
“Profile of The Red Shoes” is a marvelous making-of documentary that features Cardiff, along with his camera operator and the relative of the Oscar-winning production designer Hein Heckroth discussing the experiences on the movie set.
Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, gifted film editor in her own right and the widow of director Michael Powell, discusses the film, both the original and the restoration here, in a 2009 interview that’s in anamorphic widescreen and runs for 14 ¾ minutes.
There are six separate stills galleries. Apart from the costume and production design sketches, they’re all in black and white. They consist of studio portraits of the stars in and out of character, stills from the film, and behind-the-scenes shots of the cast and crew.
A gallery of Martin Scorsese memorabilia concerning The Red Shoes may be stepped through by the viewer. These remembrances consist of everything from an autographed pair of the red shoes themselves along with an autographed script, and a large collection of posters and lobby cards in various languages.
“The Red Shoes Sketches” puts the hundreds of production design sketches for the ballet sequence into a montage with the accompanying Brian Easdale soundtrack music playing as accompaniment. This section also allows the viewer to use the angle button to place the sketches sequences side-by-side with the actual film sequence for comparison (this may be selected from the menu or done on the fly using the angle button). One may also have the Jeremy Irons-read story of “The Red Shoes” as the background accompaniment by toggling the audio button. It lasts 16 minutes.
The enclosed 25-page booklet contains the chapter listing, cast and crew lists, some stunning stills from the film, an appreciative and insightful essay by author/critic David Ehrenstein, and a summary of the restoration program applied to this film by UCLA preservation officer Robert Gitt.
4.5/5 (not an average)
One of the most magnificent art films of the 20th century, The Red Shoes remains unmatched, and this new restored transfer and a treasure trove of bonus features makes it a must-have for all lovers of great cinema. Highest recommendation!