Dance, and ballet in particular, has always provided great fodder for engaging screen stories, with the likes of Powell and Pressburger (The Red Shoes) Robert Altman (The Company) and Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) amongst those who have drawn, with great success, upon the intensity that permeates the world of professional ballet (the obsessive commitment, the never ending quest for perfection, the pressure of performance and the physical and mental toll that it demands) to deliver some remarkably powerful productions. While it’s fair to say that Darling doesn’t reach the heights of such fare, it does draw on many of the same elements that made these films so good with a story that explores the emotional upheaval that ensues as a superstar prima ballerina struggles to come to terms with a career-ending injury that also threatens to destroy her marriage. Set in Copenhagen and shot on location at the Royal Danish Ballet, Darling shares more than mood and feverish intensity with Aranofsky’s Academy Award-winning work as the wounded star and her replacement become embroiled in a psycho-sexual battle that undermines the preparations for opening night.
Serbian-born actress Danica Curcic, who some may recognise from the short-lived television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist, plays the titular Darling, a local star returning home to Copenhagen from a triumphant season in New York to star in a production of Giselle. Her husband Frans (Gustaf Skarsgard) is the choreographer of the show and is desperate to step out from the shadow of his superstar wife, while dance company boss Kristian (Ulrich Thomsen) has tapped this as his farewell production in light of the fact that he is battling a serious illness. Darling, meanwhile, has been concealing her own medical secret, a hip condition that she has managed until now with powerful painkillers. When she collapses in agony during rehearsals, doctors advise her that her injury has reached a point where she cannot dance anymore and she is abruptly forced into early retirement. The lead in Giselle falls to her understudy Polly (played by Astrid Elbo, a real dancer at the Royal Ballet), who lacks the confidence and diva charisma that Darling exudes in spades.
Devastated at suddenly becoming the weakest link in a celebrated power couple, Darling takes it upon herself to prepare Polly for the performance, an arrangement to which Frans agrees in a bid to placate his distressed wife. Needless to say, their reversal of fortune creates tensions between the two women and Darling slowly engineers control over Polly with bullying, barbed comments, sexual overtures and an excessive physical workload that pushes Polly to breaking point. Justifying her behaviour as necessary to prepare the newcomer for the rigours of her role, it seems as though she is trying to undermine her rival and sabotage the production.
Directed by Birgitte Staermose, Darling has a gripping, compulsive energy that will draw inevitable comparisons with Black Swan, but it is ultimately a more conventional examination of artistic obsession; more soap opera than melodrama with a cool Nordic sensibility. In fact, as the vanquished star forced to make way for the talented upstart, Darling is perhaps best compared to Winona Ryder’s Beth MacIntyre rather than Natalie Portmans tragic Nina Sayers, albeit with a much more active role in the course of events. Although it is initially hard to sympathise with Darling, the character arc courtesy of Staermose and co-writer Kim Aakeson, provides Curcic with the necessary tools to ensure that, while we may not find her particularly likeable, we can begin to understand the devastation she feels at having been cut down at the peak of her success. Cinematographer Marek Weiser’s hand-held camera is very effective in capturing the physical reality of ballet; the exertions of the dancers, the blisters, the bruises and the bone-jarring toll that is the price to be paid for those performing at the highest level. With solid supporting turns from Skarsgard and Thomsen, who viewers might recognise from television roles in Westworld and Banshee respectively, Darling is a sexy, intense drama that captures both the brutality and beauty of professional ballet.