The story was already old-fashioned in 1948: budding prima ballerina Victoria (Moira Shearer) finds herself torn between the divergent demands of art and heart, as represented by two equally headstrong men – tortured control freak and impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and lovelorn composer Julian (Marius Goring). When they put aside their differences and collaborate, they produce work of awe-inspiring beauty, but ultimately the simmering tension between them leads to tragedy.
The realisation that we’re in the presence of genius comes just a few minutes into ‘The Red Shoes’, as a gaggle of eager balletomanes take their places for the inaugural performance of Lermontov’s latest masterpiece. They settle into their seats, the roar around them fades, a cheery onscreen ticker reads ‘45 minutes later…’, and Michael Powell moves us forward in time without even breaking the shot.These quietly radical directorial flourishes can be found throughout the film– and Powell’s entire canon – but what sets this greatest of all British filmmakers apart from the competition is his refusal to thrust his genius in the audience’s face, subsuming his natural showman’s flair to the demands of story and character.
Until the time comes to cut loose, at which point Powell unleashes the most eyepopping visual extravaganza imaginable. Blending impressionist art and expressionist film, blurring the barriers between theatre and cinema, body and camera, reality and dream, drawing equally on the avant-garde and the classical, the centrepiece ballet is a sequence of sheer, reckless transcendence. It’s here that ‘The Red Shoes’ becomes more than the sum of its hoary old parts, taking flight as the crowning glory of our national cinema.