The Red Shoes drew me in when I caught a peep during The Culture show’s retrospective of Michael Powell’s work. I likened the sight of a Vivien Leigh look-alike, padding across the stage in red ballet shoes to the one of Bette Davis in her scandalous scarlet ball gown in Jezebel.
Momentarily with all this playing out in my mind’s eye, I had placed The Red Shoes into the same outlawed class as Peeping Tom: Powell’s controversial film which had cast him into cinema-exile from where he never returned.
The story of The Red Shoes follows the life of a ballet company and has three characters at its centre: the cold and autocratic impresario, Boris Lermontov; Victoria Page a young and aspiring ballerina and a music student with a gift for composition, Julian Craster.
Lermontov spots their talents and under his obsessive guidance helps to promote their careers. In time he entrusts Craster to rewrite the score for the Red Shoes. Both Craster’s musical genius and Victoria’s flawless performance of the adaptation establish them as rising stars to watch. The two couldn’t be happier and they very quickly fall in love. Lermontov on finding out, is incensed and envious to the point of self-destruction. He presents Victoria with a choice: either she must leave the company and marry Julian or she must end the relationship to devote herself to becoming a prima ballerina, for in Lermontov’s stark world an artist can only have one love.
The film makes for compelling viewing with stunning landscapes and stage scenes bright with colour and fanciful costumes. It also gives a documentary-like insight into the ballet world, replete with flamboyant and petulant characters. Our protagonists are all the more likeable because they couldn’t be more different from their peers and remain largely unfazed by their Carry On-style histrionics. Moira Shearer and her co-stars’ delivery of the excellent script is all the more enjoyable as it is done with clipped no-nonsense 1940’s British accents.
The Red Shoes isn’t a film I naturally veer towards. Were it not for the Culture Show’s retrospective of Powell’s films following the digitilisation of Peeping Tom and a Martin Scorsese endorsement, I probably wouldn’t have got to it just yet. I’m glad I did. It’s whetted my appetite for more of the Powell/Pressburger combo.