The Red Shoes Review
“What do you think of Ballet?” asked film director Michael Powell of Lighting Cameraman Jack Cardiff back in 1947. “Not much, bunch of cissies prancing about.” - came the reply. Powell suggested that Cardiff should go to see a ballet production soon, as their next project was to be ‘The Red Shoes’. Cardiff’s response is fairly common among people who have the stereotypical image of male dancers in tights and tutu wearing ballerinas fixed in their minds. Over 60 years later, watching a ballet is still not seen as a particularly macho pastime, yet the film ‘The Red Shoes’ has become a classic with a place in the BFI Top 100 movies list and one that has inspired many modern day film makers including Martin Scorsese.
The production team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, collectively known as ‘The Archers’, had a string of critically acclaimed movies including ‘A Matter of Life & Death’, ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.’ After the Distributor’s screening of ‘The Red Shoes’ however, the representatives of The Rank Organisation merely stood up and walked out, believing they had an Art House flop on their hands and refusing it a circuit release. It took a small family owned cinema in America running the film continuously for a year, to gain it a reputation before it would receive a wider release.
All of this background is in preparation for us welcoming ‘The Red Shoes’ as the latest addition to the Criterion Collection on Region A locked Blu-ray. The film has undergone two years worth of restoration that included going right back to the original three strip Technicolor footage which had shrunk independently with age and realigning it digitally frame by frame to remove colour fringing and hugely improve sharpness. Mould had formed on some of the material, while all kinds of dirt and coloured marks had to be removed. Today the film looks far better on Blu-ray than it did on its first release. The lighting of Jack Cardiff can now be seen in all its beauty. Every key light, every fill and every rim light is visible as a master class for modern day wannabe lighting cameramen. This is how to achieve a 3D look without glasses. The wonder of ‘Glorious Technicolor’ lives again in our home cinemas, with its superb skin tones and Moira Shearer’s flame red hair.
The movie itself has a very simple storyline. An up and coming ballerina, Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), falls in love with aspiring composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), but she eventually has to choose between her love and her career. In the central ballet sequence, the red shoes of the title refer to a pair of red Pointe shoes that force the young ballerina to dance and give the performances of her life. It’s all based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and is brought to life on screen with a script from Emeric Pressburger and direction by Michael Powell. The parallels between the stage bound ballet and the real life drama are very clearly drawn but never with a heavy hand.
The cast includes the wonderful Anton Walbrook (as ballet producer Lermontov), who’d appeared in several previous Archers productions. Michael Powell wanted to include as many real ballet people in the film as possible rather than actors who couldn’t really dance, so Moira Shearer was hired for the lead role with great support from Leonide Massine and the amazing Robert Helpmann. Twenty years later, Helpmann was to scare the pants off many a youngster as the Childcatcher in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’.
‘The Red Shoes’ includes a 15 minute long ballet sequence which is quite entrancing in its set design, use of colour and movement. I was never really a fan of long dance sequences in movies, but when they’re performed so beautifully and creatively as this they really hold your attention. While watching this, I could see where Gene Kelly got his inspiration for the fantasy dance sequences in some of the most successful MGM musicals of the 1950’s. Above all, this isn’t so much a film about ballet as a story that could happen anywhere, yet it just happens to be set in the ballet world.
The movie also provides us with a window on a world that no longer exists – a kind of time portal, if you like. We’re guided through Covent Garden as it was in post war Britain then on to Paris and also given a look at Monte Carlo with some stunning location photography. The fact that the period exteriors look so good on the Criterion Blu-ray gives the film a feeling of immediacy. As it happens, you are there!
‘The Red Shoes’ has a lot to offer the viewer. It’s perhaps not the territory of the noisy blockbuster movie brigade as its pace is such that it takes its time to tell the story well. You tend to need more than the attention span of a hyperactive ferret to enjoy and become immersed in the tale, but it’s well worth relaxing into the piece. The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio – and that’s how it should always be shown so we can benefit from the composition of each oil painting of a shot, without any cropping to please the masses who think that a picture isn't worth watching if it isn’t in widescreen.
Perhaps the release of the beautifully restored ‘The Red Shoes’ on Blu-ray is timely as interest in the ballet world will peak due to the current commercial success of ‘The Black Swan’ in the cinemas. This may be the nudge that many people need to take a look at something else based around the same art form that they have overlooked to date. Perhaps this too will lead to them gaining an appreciation for the work of the creative team of Powell & Pressburger as well as the way in which Technicolor movies were lit and shot by legendary cinematographers. To those who have yet to be seduced by ‘The Red Shoes’, I’d say – give it a try. There’s so much richness to be gained and so little to lose.