Review: “Ballet Shoes” (2007)
Produced by: Piers Wenger, Michele Buck, Damien Timmer, Patrick Spence, Heidi Thomas
Written by: Heidi Thomas
Edited by: Adam Recht
Cinematography by: Peter Greenhalgh
Music by: Kevin Sargent
Starring: Emma Watson, Yasmin Paige, Lucy Boynton, Richard Griffiths, Emilia Fox, Marc Warren, Victoria Wood, Eileen Atkins, Peter Bowles, Heather Nicol
Based on the novel Ballet Shoes: A Story of Three Children on the Stage by Noel Streatfeild
Remember that scene in You’ve Got Mail, where Kathleen’s store shuts down and she goes to the Fox Books and tearfully helps out a Fox Books customer desperately looking for “the Shoe books” that the store clerk has no idea about? “I’d start with Ballet Shoes because it’s my favorite, although Skating Shoes is completely wonderful,” she sobs. It’s one of the best scenes in that movie, because it shows how passionate Kathleen was about the job she had just lost and how the books she sold weren’t merely a means to a profit, but a means to make the lives of others better.
When I requested that my friends recommend some movies for me to review on Facebook, feeling rather uncreative and unchallenged in my own choices lately, this was the first of the recommendations that was something I hadn’t ever even considered watching before. (My recent review of Oscar was recommended in person and inspired my Facebook solicitation, which led to my reviewing The Road, as well, though I already owned that.)
When the friend who suggested this movie mentioned it, that scene in You’ve Got Mail was the first thing that I thought of, and I did a quick bit of research to see if it was, in fact, based on the book that was so crucial to that heartbreaking scene. Sure enough, it was, and, being something completely out of my normal viewing habits, especially for being a BBC TV movie, it was the pretty much the perfect suggestion. I had only hoped that I would like it nearly as much as Kathleen loved the book it was based on – and also because I still felt bad about not exactly being enthralled with the movie she had previously suggested, Waitress.
The story of Ballet Shoes, set in the 1930s, centers upon three young girls – Pauline, Petrova, and Posy – each orphaned as babies and adopted by a kindly old paleontologist, Great Uncle Matthew, who discovers each of them on his travels around the world. The girls grow up under the care of their Sylvia, who was similarly orphaned at a young age and adopted by her Uncle Matthew, and Nana. When he disappears on one of his expeditions, however, their source of money disappears with him, and so they are forced to sell off valuables, rent out rooms, and, as the girls get older, work to support their impoverished but otherwise happy lives.
Pauline and Posy discover a passion for the stage, with Pauline pursuing acting and Posy ballet, as her birth mother’s ballet shoes were all that she had when she was taken in as an infant. Petrova, on the other hand, attempts to fall in with her sisters, seeing a similar move into entertainment as the only means of maintaining life as it is, but she feels far more driven to work in mechanics and become an aviator, and she doesn’t quite have the knack that her adoptive sisters do. Even more troubling is Sylvia’s health, which is deteriorating, but the family continues to hemorrhage money, despite their efforts and the generous income and support from their eccentric boarders, and Petrova, who accidentally comes upon Sylvia’s secret, begins to feel the weight of the girls’ burden, made all the more heavy thanks to her sisters’ growing egos.
It’s fascinating that the story, which, from my brief amount of research, seems to adhere so closely to the original book, is titled Ballet Shoes when the far more sympathetic and compelling character is Petrova, the sister who practically wants nothing to do with any sort of production but does so anyway in order to help her family and support her sisters, who don’t seem to care much for anyone beyond themselves. At least, that was the impression that I got from this particular TV movie production. I’m not certain this was the intent of Streatfeild or even just the film producers, but the title choice is given an almost ironic quality when you consider the kinder light that is shined upon the shy Petrova. Perhaps I got this impression because Petrova’s talents in mechanics (and lack of talent in theatrics) are far more apparent than that of Pauline, the girl who rises to fame on stage and then, supposedly, in film, and Posy, who is taken in by a prestigious dance instructor and who selfishly cries for herself when the teacher is no longer able to do train her.
The filmmakers apparently hired a body double for Lucy Boynton’s role to show off her character’s remarkable dancing skill, but poor Emma Watson, who isn’t the best actress in the world but who nonetheless actually has talent, is left with the unlikable role of Pauline, whose acting skills we are assured are brilliant, but we hardly get to see them. It’s as if the filmmakers weren’t confident enough in their skills to coax a moving performance out from even Ms. Watson, so they just hit the fast forward button while narrating – “Yeah, see, then she wows everybody, and then everybody loves her, and then… yeah, now she’s a movie star. And… Here we go… [presses the play button]”
That’s really the biggest issue here – the whole production is in a rush to hit every plot point that it forgets to actually develop them properly. Petrova, at one point, very nearly becomes a non-presence in the story until she just pops back in to remind us that she’s been somewhere in the background suffering. That’s the other thing that hurts the movie – because of the constant fast forwarding, the suffering they feel just isn’t palpable. I’m not asking for Les Miserables or anything – this is a kids’ movie – but the successes and resolutions of the plot are achieved so effortlessly, and the filmmakers are so concerned about keeping it light, that even the fairly impressive performances from Yasmin Paige as Petrova and Emilia Fox as Sylvia can’t help the film from feeling like everything’s just absolutely wonderful. Remember the 1990s film adaptations of A Little Princess and The Secret Garden? Those were stunning and are more in line with what I would expect from such a story. If the film’s tidy and consequence-free finale is from the original book, I honestly wouldn’t have minded some creative liberties being taken, then.
It’s possible that comparing a BBC TV movie to bigger Hollywood productions is a bit unfair on my part, but a smaller budget does not necessarily mean that a film is necessarily going to be disappointing, either. One thing that’s always stuck with me from my 4th grade art teacher was that artists work around their constraints, and I don’t see a tiny budget as being an excuse for a bad or boring production. (And this movie is really boring to look at and listen to. I’m surprised there’s even a musical score credit to be found for it. This thing takes the term “dialogue-driven” a bit too literally.)
And, so, my feeling like a pretentious jerk in regards to my friends’ suggestions continues. My friend has mentioned that she’s going to continue to suggest things until I find something that I like. Honestly, though, even if I don’t like any of the movies that are suggested, that doesn’t change the fact that I appreciate the suggestions, all the same. Like I said, the whole point of outsourcing my movie watching was to get out of my comfort zone and diversify my reviews, and I would have never thought to watch Ballet Shoes had it not been for a friend suggestion. So, yeah, thanks again, and keep ‘em coming!
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2 / 5