Film Review: PolinaClichés abound in this dance film about a leery ballerina, keeping it resolutely earthbound.
Polina, co-directed by Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj, focuses on its titular character (Anastasia Shevtsova), a Russian dancer who gains a coveted place in the Bolshoi school but whose path to prima ballerina-hood is a rocky one. She finally finds redemption in hip-hop choreography.
Despite its overseas settings of Russia, Antwerp and Paris, Polina's basic story is nothing new, just rags to more rags and then the distant possibility of riches. And as dance films go, it falls unexcitingly somewhere between the insane excess of Black Swan and the quieter, more conventional presentation of dancers' lives in The Turning Point. The filmmakers don't help themselves with a very murky subplot involving Polina's ballet-mad father Anton (Miglen Mirtchev) and his scary affiliation with some Russian mob types that may have something to do with his early demise. What choreography we do see—apart from a striking downward view of Polina doing a fiendishly difficult variation from Raymonda—is profoundly mediocre, especially the urban stuff.
Shevtsova, inordinately self-possessed, has the initially arresting, monotonously pretty face of a doll and is a perfectly adequate actress. But you don't fall quiveringly in love with her, as one did with the very young Leslie Caron or Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. Without a central, rivetingly charismatic performance, the film becomes a very flat experience about a lot of pretty people having to do some quite un-pretty things for the sake of their foot-driven art. In one of those hard-to-control casting tropes, a la Freddie Bartholomew in David Copperfield and Jean Simmons in Great Expectations, eight-year-old Veronika Zhovnytska, as the child Polina, lacks the blank-faced beauty of Shevtsova but has an impish charm that is far more fun, making you wish the movie hadn't made her grow up.
The acting honors are actually stolen by the older generation here, with Aleksey Guskov a ravaged standout in the kind of crusty, intractable ballet mistress role Maria Ouspenskaya always used to get. (Without overdoing the flamboyance, he has the very soul of Old Russia and he's far more convincing than the awful cliché played by Vincent Cassel in Black Swan.) Mirtchev imports a few genuinely affecting moments, like his reaction to the news of his daughter's being accepted into the ballet, and lovely Kseniya Kutepova, as his wife, injects a few gracefully rueful notes as well. Juliette Binoche has a star cameo as a Paris modern-dance instructress and works her (inevitably) scarf-clad butt off to be convincing, but her efforts only emphasize the slightly jarring quality of her being there in the first place.
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