In David Kynaston's magisterial book Austerity Britain, an essential study of a recovering nation, the author argues that Michael Powell's indestructible The Red Shoes has to do with the pressures on contemporaneous women to decide between career and marriage. It's an unexpectedly prosaic take on a famously heightened film, but Kynaston is right to remind us that the film emerged at a time of drabness, want and uncertainty.
Powell was not consciously imagining a fantastic (if dark) counterpoint to the powdered eggs. He and his collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, remained wedded to English magic throughout their careers. Nonetheless, the film offered a fiery jolt to cinemagoers in 1948. It works differently now – nostalgia for an era few viewers remember kicks in – but the picture’s power remains undiminished.
Centring around a balletic adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story, The Red Shoes wallows in fairy-story ambience throughout. Moira Shearer plays Victoria, a high- born dancer who falls under the sinister spell of a ruthless impresario, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). After various ups and downs, Lermontov – a model of the controlling artistic maniac – decides to structure his next great work around his discovery. Tensions develop between Boris, Vicky and her composer lover, Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Their troubled collaboration is The Red Shoes: the story of a woman driven to endless, lethal dancing by her magical footwear.
Powell and Pressburger, whose work was characterised by lack of compromise, had an uncluttered understanding of the core metaphor. The urge to make art can drive the truly committed like a madness that poisons everyday concerns.
Just look how that impulse took over the film-makers. The Red Shoes defied commercial orthodoxy by staging a 20-minute dance fantasy that did not advance the plot in any significant fashion. Jack Cardiff's cinematography engaged with bold colours. Robert Helpmann choreographed brilliantly. The film went on to become a significant hit and inspire a coming generation of film-makers. Without The Red Shoes, we would not have had An American in Paris. Martin Scorsese, who admits to Lermontov tendencies, called it "the movie that plays in my heart". Worth savouring in this very different era.