Weekend Watch: The Red Shoes

Pamela Hutchinson

Pamela Hutchinson says that the 1948 Powell and Pressburger classic is the film-making duo’s best work

21 September 2018 15:00

As the temperature begins to drop and the nights draw in, there is no finer film for your slippers’n’sofa evening than 1948’s The Red Shoes. It’s not a feel-good film because it’s more complicated than that. It’s a feel-a-lot film. The Red Shoes is a tragic melodrama, but one that was inspired by a fairytale. A film in Technicolor that strays so far from photo-realism that you can see all the brush-strokes. A film that depicts the emotional and physical hazards of a life on stage, but inspired floods of young people to dance.

The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 70-year-old masterpiece, thrives on its contradictions. And the way that it combines gorgeous surface design with fierce narrative momentum means that it’s immersive even on a domestic screen. From the moment the doors to the Royal Opera House are flung open in the first scene, to the haunting reprise of the Red Shoes ballet in the closing moments, you’ll be entranced, just like the girl in the Hans Christian Andersen story, swept away by a magic spell. I remember that feeling when I first watched it as a clumsy girl who stomped and teetered her way through ballet lessons in the church hall. I still watch The Red Shoes regularly and those tingles have not disappeared, though, thankfully for everyone, I have swapped ballet slippers for the cosier kind.

The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948)

The Red Shoes is one of Powell and Pressburger’s most beloved films – and there is fearsome competition. It’s a deathless fable about art and love, youth and passion, and one that weaves a rich emotional tapestry from well-worn threads. The UK audience were slow to embrace the film, which only received a small theatrical release from the Rank Organisation at first – the bosses were infuriated by how much it had gone over budget. However, it eventually made a star out of Moira Shearer, an accomplished Sadler’s Wells ballerina previously untested as a screen actress, who made her film debut as Vicky Page, a young dancer ablaze with talent and ambition.

In the film Vicky meets, and eventually impresses, Boris Lermontov, the tyrannical leader of a well-respected ballet company – a meticulously melancholic portrayal by Anton Walbrook. Lermontov hires another young talent, Julian Craster (Marius Goring) to write the music for a new ballet, ‘The Red Shoes’, and elevates Vicky to the lead role. It’s a triumph, bringing fame overnight to both dancer and composer. Vicky and Julian are both in love with their art, and soon with each other too, which provokes Lermontov’s jealousy over the dancer he hoped to make his protégée. Eventually Vicky has to make a choice between love and art, but like the girl in the fairytale, the choice may be an illusion. Can she ever really live if she isn’t dancing? What will it take to make her stop?

The story of The Red Shoes is about ambition: the yearning to produce truly great art and reach for immortality. Although at first they combine to make a wonderful ballet, the desires of the three main players are incompatible, and in the end it isn’t love that drives them apart, but art itself.

The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948)

Powell and Pressburger understood this kind of ambition, having made a series of extraordinary films in the mid-1940s before enrolling in the Ballet Lermontov – from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) to Black Narcissus (1947). Every P&P fan has a favourite film, and no-one will back down in an argument, but I’d be prepared to go in swinging for the The Red Shoes. It arguably goes further than its predecessors, in all aesthetic directions, and offers an artistic statement in praise of over-reaching. For Lermontov, Page and Craster, nothing less than perfection will do. They have little time for people who don’t have the talent (a plagiarising professor, for example), or who aren’t prepared to put the work in. What makes The Red Shoes so beautifully escapist is that it is a piece of art made about art itself. What makes it so exquisite is the number of talents who created a complete vision of film, design, music and dance. Shearer was joined in the cast by more experienced dancers, Ludmilla Tchérina and Léonide Massine, Brian Easdale wrote the sumptuous score, and Jack Cardiff, the wizard of Technicolor, was the cinematographer. Easdale won an Oscar for this film, as did art directors Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson, who created its hyper-real world – the glamorous locations in London’s theatreland and along the south coast of France, as well as the surrealist stage sets for the famous ballet sequence.

That extended dance sequence, choreographed by Robert Helpmann, who also appears in the film, is The Red Shoes’ most audacious moment. For 17 minutes, the film dispenses with dialogue, and realism, altogether. ‘Once the curtain had gone up for the performance, we would no longer be in a theatre,’ said Powell, ‘but inside the heads of two young people who were falling in love’.  Which is exactly my kind of movie escapism.

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