“Black Swan” is as exciting and enthralling a piece of entertainment as any made in the past two decades. It is as involving as a hundred thrillers, as shocking as a hundred horror films, and at its core is a Natalie Portman performance that won her an Academy Award.
Director Darren Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler,” was a study in obsession — a man whose love of the spotlight kept him constantly chasing past glory. “Black Swan” can be seen in many ways as its companion piece, though its star’s obsession comes not at the twilight of her career, but its dawn. Nina, the ballerina portrayed by Portman, has the chance of a lifetime. Dancing for a prestigious company in New York, she tries out for the lead in the season’s opening performance of “Swan Lake.”
What follows is not the most original story idea in the world, where an artist becomes so obsessed with their work that life begins to mirror the art. What makes “Black Swan” stand out are the remarkable pace of its direction and the performances of its cast, which make the characters crackle with life and individuality. Early in the film, Aronofsky’s camera contains subtle indications of what is to come, with small visual cues and flashes telling the audience that something is not quite right in Nina’s mind. This sets the table for a last half-hour of startling power, where surrealism creeps into the film and we can never be sure how much of what we’re seeing is real or fantasy.
It would all be for naught if the actress at its center weren’t able to carry it off. This is the role of Portman’s career. She has an indefinable innocence to her bearing that makes Nina intensely sympathetic. She really wants to be great. She wants it so badly that she loses her sanity in the process. And though the character’s arc is melodramatic, Portman keeps us from finding it anything but utterly human. We can understand every choice she makes and every step she takes, even the ones that lead to her utter ruin.
“Black Swan” is available for streaming on Hulu.