Released in 1948, this British classic is well regarded among film lovers for its stunning visuals, but does it hold up?
The Red Shoes is a film I’ve avoided watching for years. It’s one of those film student assignments everybody knows they should watch but usually don’t because it’s reputation looms too large. Like Citizen Kane, the weight if it’s reputation can diminish the viewing experience.
However, due to an excellent video essay by Royal Ocean Film Society and my resurgent interest in expressionistic filmmaking, I decided to finally give this one a look. I wasn’t disappointed, but I know it won’t be for everyone.
The story follows the Ballet Lermontov a renowned ballet company run by the meticulous and demanding Boris Lermontov played by Anton Walbrook. The young ballerina Victoria Page played by the stunning Moira Shearer, joins the company and becomes a star with the production of their latest ballet The Red Shoes based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. When the new star Victoria page falls in love with the young composer Julian Craster, played by Marius Goring, a jealous Lermontov forces her to choose between her career and her love.
The film is often described as being about Moira Shearer’s character, and she is the standout. But the movie is really about the ballet company itself. It is about the artistic process. Conceiving a show, designing the production, dance rehearsals and all the personalities that collide in that act of artistic expression.
The film is not constructed in the modern fashion of following one character to the exclusion of all others. There are really three main characters who all have complete arcs and full stories. It doesn’t pick it’s lane and charge through to the end. It builds its story slowly. It adds layer upon layer until it’s ultimate story is revealed in its final moments.
Modern films try to immerse us in one characters perspective and make the experience as realistic as possible. This movie paints with a much broader brush. It incorporates multiple characters perspectives and it goes as wild and impressionistic as possible.
The centerpiece of the film is The Ballet of the red Shoes performed in surreal fashion in front of vivid impressionistic backgrounds. If you know anything about The Red shoes you know that it is beautifully shot. It was filmed with Technicolor’s three strip process which essentially involved exposing three strips of film and dying each one a different primary color. This created the incredible colors seen in old Hollywood films. Technicolor is the reason the yellow brick road is so yellow in The Wizard of Oz and why the red shoes are so startling red in this film.
The colors here are stunning and produce a dreamy effect. Every frame is a painting here with colors and composition combining to form a deeply expressionistic experience. The skin tones are heightened the set pieces look like something out of a half remembered dream. The entire film feels like a dark fairy tale.
The acting here is superb especially from Anton Walbrook and Moira Shearer. Her dancing is especially exquisite. The movie walks an interesting line between hammy and naturalistic. Some moments feel contemporary as when Victoria is congratulated by the choreographer after her big performance while other moments feel like dated melodrama. Marius Goring in particular feels over the top as Crastor.
The big question though is of course is the film worth watching? For film students? Yes. Watch it and take notes. I wish I had watched it sooner. For film lovers and lovers of film history? Yes 1,000%. It is a really fun really entertaining ride. It deserves its place in the pantheon of film greats. For the average viewer looking to have a good time this weekend? No. I think it’s surrealist style is going to be off putting for someone just cruising through HBO Max looking for something fun. I think if you want something very different. If you’re tired of gritty realism and predictable story structure this will be breath of fresh air.
I loved it, but I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Don’t let it’s reputation as one of “the greats” put you off the film. There’s a lot to love here. It’s my cup of tea. A