Michael Powell’s 1948 drama, about a ballerina torn between love and career, is possibly the most visually beautiful ever made.
If one were asked to name great British film directors, I’m sure that Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean would spring to mind immediately, and rightly so. But a third name that also exemplifies the best in British filmmaking, especially in the 1940s and 50s, is Michael Powell. He and the Hungarian-born screenwriter Emeric Pressburger formed a production team that they called “The Archers,” responsible for some eighteen feature films, with several classics among them including Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death. My favorite, and by common consent their greatest film, is 1948’s The Red Shoes.
Anton Walbrook plays a ballet impresario named Boris Lermontov. He stumbles upon an up-and-coming talent, a young ballerina named Victoria Page, played by real-life ballerina Moira Shearer. At the same time, a new young composer, played by Marius Goring, is recruited into the ballet company. He composes a work based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Red Shoes, about a girl who can’t stop dancing when she puts on the magic shoes of the title. Vicky dances this role, and becomes a huge star under the tutelage of Lermontov. But the ballet master doesn’t believe anything should come between a dancer and her art, so when she falls in love with the composer, Lermontov is determined to put a stop to it.
This summary of the melodramatic tale doesn’t do justice to the luscious production given to it by Powell & Pressburger. From the very first scene, with students running into the concert hall to see the latest London ballet, a sequence which cleverly sets the stage for the rest of the film, the masterful moving shots, production design, and witty dialogue carry you along. Walbrook is just about perfect in the role of a lifetime—Lermontov is a suave, self-centered perfectionist who carefully hides his tender side. And the beautiful red-haired Shearer was a real discovery, not just a fine dancer but a very good actress. The music by Brian Easdale is stunning; this is a full-fledged original orchestral score that lives up to the wonderful dancing. But perhaps the most memorable aspect of The Red Shoes is its look, the visual texture, if you will. Jack Cardiff shot it in Technicolor, and no film ever showcased the glowing richness of that color process better than this one. Most vivid is the centerpiece, the Red Shoes ballet itself, in which Powell opens up the stage into an awesome dreamlike cinematic space, full of dynamic movement and swirling color. As a visual experience, The Red Shoes is arguably the most gorgeous film in history, certainly the most gorgeous color film. It’s a movie about the conflict between the extraordinary demands of art and the ordinary needs of human beings for love.