'Darling' Film Review | London 2017
A superstar ballerina suffers a dramatic mid-career meltdown in director Birgitte Staermose’s Copenhagen-set thriller.
A superstar prima ballerina suffers for her art, and makes damn sure everybody else does, too, in this stylish psycho-thriller from documentarian turned feature director Birgitte Staermose. Shot on location at the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, Darling feels like a Nordic remake of Darren Aronofksy’s Black Swan in places. It certainly has a comparable mood of feverish intensity and a strikingly similar plot, in which two female dancers battle over a juicy stage role while psycho-sexual fireworks explode backstage.
World-premiered at the London Film Festival last month, Darling is currently on theatrical release in Denmark. Backed by Zentropa, the home of Lars von Trier, Staermose’s crisp little chamber thriller is an old-fashioned pot-boiler at heart. But its polished mix of lurid melodrama and sexy Nordic eye candy should appeal to genre-friendly festivals and foreign buyers, particularly for small-screen platforms where the Scandi-Noir brand has a loyal niche audience.
Serbian-born Danish actress Danica Curcic (recently seen on the short-lived Stephen King TV drama The Mist) plays Darling, a haughty prima ballerina returning to Copenhagen from a triumphant spell in New York to star in a flashy new hometown production of Giselle. Her choreographer husband Frans (Sweden’s Gustaf Skarsgard, son of Stellan and regular on the History Channel drama Vikings) is also working on the production, which outgoing company boss Kristian (Ulrich Thomsen) has lined up as his career-capping swan song. Complicating tensions further, Kristian is hiding a serious illness, and also shares a sexual history with Darling which still crackles in the air between them, occasionally serving as leverage in their Faustian private deals.
Meanwhile, Darling is concealing her own medical secret, a worsening hip condition that she masks with powerful painkillers. After collapsing in agony during rehearsals, she insists the problem can be “trained away”. But the doctors disagree, and Darling is abruptly forced into early retirement. The Giselle role falls to her understudy Polly (Astrid Grarup Elbo, a real dancer at the Royal Ballet), a fragile novice who lacks Darling’s high-voltage diva charisma. Inevitably, this sudden reversal in fortunes creates bad blood and bitter rivalry.
Devastated at suddenly becoming the weaker half in a glamorous power couple, Darling begins shadowing Frans at rehearsals, slowly engineering control over Polly with subtle bullying, barbed comments and queasy sexual overtures. It is not entirely clear whether she is trying to sabotage the production and undermine her younger rival or push her to the emotional extremes required for the role. Even Darling herself seems unsure. In any case, her destructive, heavily medicated behavior takes its toll on everyone around her, straining her marriage to breaking point as opening night looms.
Despite some clear parallels in tone and plot, Darling stops short of replicating the full-spectrum hallucinatory mania of Black Swan. Staermose’s film is ultimately a more conventional portrait of artistic obsession, a deluxe soap opera with a disappointingly sensible conclusion that speaks more to cool-headed Scandinavian values than to the overcooked conventions of melodrama. Spoiler alert: Nobody dies in a pool of blood onstage. Shame. Sometimes, understatement can be overrated.
That said, Darling still has a gripping obsessive-compulsive energy and an attractive cast of alluringly amoral, sharp-edged Nordic beauties. The meat of the drama is also more viscerally focused on the raw physical reality of ballet than most films on this topic. Zooming in on the grunting exertions of the dancers, Marek Wieser’s hand-held camera shows us the blisters, bruises and bone-wrenching injuries that lie behind the grand romantic spectacle. Staermose’s long documentary experience serves her well here, lending a welcome patina of journalistic authenticity to characters and plot twists that sometimes strain credulity.
Production companies: Zentropa Entertainments, Zentropa International Sweden, Film i Väst, TV2 Denmark
Cast: Danica Curcic, Astrid Grarup Elbo, Gustaf Skarsgard, Ulrich Thomsen
Director: Birgitte Staermose
Screenwriters: Kim Fupz Aakeson, Birgitte Staermose
Producers: Marie Gade Denessen, Peter Aalbaek Jensen
Cinematographer: Marek Wieser
Editor: Anders Albjerg Kristiansen
Music: Raul Medall Pastor
Venue: London Film Festival
Sales company: TrustNordisk