Role: Nina Sayers, a mentally unstable and fragile ballerina
Black Swan is a thrillingly orchestrated psychological horror-thriller anchored on a powerful performance by Natalie Portman (more on that later). From the director of the modern classic Requiem for a Dream Darren Aronofsky, the film is an engaging depiction of the downward spiral a perfectionist ballerina experiences when she wins the lead role in Swan Lake. Technically, the film is flawless: the beautifully choreographed cinematography, on-point editing, intriguing sound design, and the iconic make-up.
How does Natalie Portman enter the film?
Her character enters exactly the moment where the film starts. In a riveting dream sequence, Sayers dances the role of the White Swan as she is suddenly tormented by Rothbart, the terrifying antagonist in Swan Lake. This scene already embodies the majority of what to expect in this performance: a mix of technical and emotional complexity. (And the dance double is not an issue to me, by the way.)
As stated above, the film really anchors on the character of Sayers, the troubled ballerina. First of all, this is a case of great casting: Portman always had the ‘good girl’ image that fits the character so well, but she is also more than that. To add to that, she already enjoys the advantage of being the sole lead actor in the film; everyone else is in the background, therefore giving her more opportunities to shine.
And the film never falters to give her moments to relish as an actress. This is a flashy character to play, but the writing is not really the film’s strongest point. The film has a tendency to overdo the simplistic depiction of good vs. evil, so it is left to Portman to emphasize on small moments to provide nuances to the character to eventually build it in small moments even before the showier scenes come.
Portman successfully careful calibrates the performance with humanity and believability. The story takes the character to haywire moments, but Portman makes those scenes even more terrifying because she has effectively earned our empathy.
Her frustration, helplessness, jealousy, and confusion all feel real. These are all effective because we have seen her from the beginning, the innocent Nina, up to when she starts to lose grip of sanity. This makes the psychological turmoil more felt and tangible.
Portman’s slow metamorphosis both as a ballerina and as an innocent girl is credible and engaging. As her character actively and reactively changes the course of her fate, She maintains a steady grip of understanding of the character as the narrative progresses.
She brings the human part of the film amidst the entire spectacle. The character must have been difficult to play because it is all about everything around her going out of control and abnormal, and yet it is her character that brings the reality that we need for the whole roller-coaster narrative to work.
Portman nails the big moments of the character. It is in the last thirty minutes of the film where she gets to highest peaks of this performance. This is where the film goes blurry within reality and fantasy, the horror in her mind and the monsters around her. This is the make-or-break turn of the film, and it all succeeds because the film is so well-directed and because Portman keeps it all together.
Upon repeated viewing, while everyone during the 2010 awards season was all about Portman’s dancing in the film, it is actually the non-dancing scenes that stick with me the most. Sure, she is a really believable ballerina, but I tend to notice more the emotional complications the characters was set to have rather than the technical aspect of it which is the dancing part. Portman’s performance survives the craziness of the film and emerges as an acting triumph.
ACADEMY AWARD FOR BEST ACTRESS NOMINEES, 2009-2015, RANKED:
- Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010)
- Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook (2012)