‘The Red Shoes’: Dancing Defiantly To Its Own Tune

“Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.”

— Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), The Red Shoes

The sublime, sensational carnival of The Red Shoes represents the pinnacle of Technicolor achievement and remains, after an astonishing 62 years, one of the most visually rich films to ever grace the screen. It bangs its drum proudly for the tremendous importance of art, going so far as to present it as a matter of life and death.

Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page (Moira Shearer) is an aspiring ballerina, singled out for stardom by terrifying ballet producer Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Together with Lermontov’s team of ace collaborators, which includes the fledgling composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), they bring to the stage a daring new interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Red Shoes; the story of a pair of enchanted shoes which literally dance their owner to death. When romance blossoms for Vicky and Julian, this enrages the controlling Lermontov, who is unshakably convinced that this will threaten their artistic integrity.

Like the ballet within the film, with which it shares numerous other parallels, The Red Shoes is a triumph of collaboration between artists at the height of their powers. The film’s visionaries, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (known together as The Archers) were masters of subverting the staid view of both the British as a people, and Britain’s filmic output. The dynamic duo’s films are unmistakably idiosyncratic; combining irreverent wit, exceptional visuals and extraordinary passion. To them the British are honourable, amusing, determined, cheeky; tea drinkers and beer swillers; heroes, rakes, lovers and artists.

The film’s production designs by acclaimed painter Hein Heckroth (who produced a series of 200 oil sketches) are wonderfully realised in the heart-stoppingly beautiful cinematography, courtesy of Jack Cardiff, fresh from an Oscar win for the glorious Black Narcissus. The Red Shoes also features an unforgettably evocative score from Brian Easdale. The admirable endeavours of both Heckroth and Easdale were recognised with Oscars.

As Vicky, Moira Shearer’s fresh, exuberant beauty was elevated to that of the goddess by a mask of stage makeup. Shearer herself, even in her natural state, is a shock of colour; her blue eyes and red hair ablaze against her pale skin. Not only a remarkable dancer, she proves herself a hugely accomplished actress in the most scrutinising of the performance arts: the microscope of cinema.

For a film which paints with broad, vibrant strokes, Anton Walbrook is appropriately larger than life as megalomaniac Boris Lermontov. He is based on two figures: Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian ballet impresario, founder of the Ballets Russes; and Alexander Korda, a Hungarian-born British producer and film director, who had the original vision of bringing The Red Shoes to the screen, as early as 1934. A uniquely expressive performer, Walbrook performs with unforgettable intensity; a brutish counterpoint to the amiable yet gutsy heroine.

In the commentary, Moira Shearer remembers how the aloof Walbrook, who often wore dark glasses on set, also brought something of his own formidable personality to the role of Lermontov, saying, “He was a remote figure and he was remote to everybody. He was very very very grand. He was the old school.”

The ballet of The Red Shoes is an audacious 17-minute creation which we watch from the stage, breaking through the ‘fourth wall’, as the camera ‘dances’ alongside the performers. The aesthetic ingenuity of the kinetic, vivacious, hallucinogenic production illuminates the psychology of Vicky’s performance. The sequence features landscapes with more depth, colour, fluidity and malleability than the stage would have allowed, and becomes not merely a celebration of ballet but, moreover, of the scope and spectacle of cinema, with its boundless possibilities and ability to imaginatively mimic perspective and realise a fantasy. It is, arguably above all, an unabashed celebration of the screen, as its filmmakers explore the potential of cinema to conjure magic, enhance ballet and colour musical compositions.

Amongst the many subversive touches is the subjugation of Vicky and Julian’s romance in favour of the ballet storyline. The audience are with Vicky most fervently as she falls for the artform. This oddly aligns us with Lermontov — despite his forceful, cynical personality — as he too subordinates romance in pursuit of artistic excellence. As Ian Christie explains in the commentary, this was about communicating the importance of art, “Powell and Pressburger were unabashed popularisers. They wanted to bring the message of art to the widest possible audience, without compromising its quality, as Powell said, “We had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy. Now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told everyone to go out and die for art.”

A feast of extras accompany the immaculately restored main feature. A Criterion Collection commentary recorded in 1994 with film historian Ian Christie features interviews with stars Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, composer Brian Easdale, and Martin Scorsese. It is wonderfully comprehensive, boasting charming and frank recollections from Moira, Marius, Jack et al; all held together by the exhaustively informative, authoritative Ian Christie.

Powell and Pressburger enthusiast Martin Scorsese has several important contributions to the commentary. His passion for the film is evidenced by the fact that throughout his own formidable body of work he has repeatedly paid homage to The Red Shoes, not least in Raging Bull, where he explains that the key to his fight sequences’ success was that he imitated the style and internalisation of the dance scenes from The Red Shoes.

In another fascinating addition, the appositely silky-voiced Jeremy Irons reads excerpts from Powell and Pressburger’s later novelisation of the film, which was created with the intention of enhancing our understanding of the characters and story. It can be heard alongside the film, reasonably — although not of course perfectly — matched to the action and thus this adds depth, giving us an actually quite thrilling glimpse into the familiar characters’ internal lives; and it is read by Irons delightfully.

Other extras include a short restoration demonstration, narrated by Martin Scorsese, which concisely and effectively illustrates what has been achieved, making one appreciate the extraordinary accomplishments of those who have rescued this great film from mouldy, mottled, lacklustre indignity. Also present are a 25-minute profile of the film, a stills gallery, a trailer, a gallery of Martin Scorsese’s The Red Shoes memorabilia and a gallery of Hein Heckroth’s production designs for the film’s ballet set to the score, which can be viewed alongside the film itself or accompanied by Jeremy Irons reading the original Hans Christian Anderson fairytale.

The illustrated booklet that accompanies the discs includes an enlightening essay by critic David Ehrenstein in which he, not unreasonably, declares, “The Red Shoes is clearly more than a film. It’s a complete and indelible expression of life and art themselves.”

Despite its madly heightened unreality, The Red Shoes is utterly believable, intoxicating and impossible to resist; seducing you with its outrageous beauty, vibrancy and sackfuls of charm. This beguiling fantasy is one of the greats of British, nay world cinema. An inspiration to filmmakers and audiences alike, the restoration and Criterion’s superb packaging have reinvigorated this fine, fine film for a new generation. Magnificent.

RATING 10 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.