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Birds of Paradise Review: Uninspired Storytelling Bogs Down Great Choreography

There are a few superb ballet flicks, ranging from ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948) through ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘Center Stage’ (both released in 2000), and, of course, ‘Black Swan’ (2010), which probably gave Natalie Portman the role of a lifetime and even won her an Oscar for Best Actress. If my memory serves me well, the last ballet film I saw was Luca Guadagnino’s bloated and pretentious 2018 version of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria.’

‘Birds of Paradise,’ which is presently available for streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, has now joined the ever-growing roster of ballet flicks. The film, directed by Sarah Adina Smith of ‘Buster’s Mal Heart’ fame, follows Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers), a Virginia native who receives a scholarship to join the renowned dance institution in Paris, France. Kate used to be a basketball player before she began dancing for five years. And, while she is excellent at what she does in the United States, things are very different in Paris. Unlike her fellow dancers, Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset), the academy’s dancing instructor, believes Kate lacks the grace and precision required of a great ballet dancer. Kate, on the other hand, refuses to give up and is determined to prove to herself that she has what it takes to become a ballet dancer.

Marine (Kristine Froseth), the wealthy daughter of the American ambassador and a once-promising number-one ballet dancer in the academy, has lately lost her twin brother and dance partner, Ollie. She returns to the academy, determined to win the coveted prize for Ollie. Her character has a rough start with Kate the first time she is presented. They don’t get along at first, and to make matters worse, Kate is forced to share a room with her.

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As the story develops, we see Kate and Marine transform from adversaries to improbable best friends, even going so far as to make a pledge “to win the prize jointly or not at all.” The prize in question is a contract with the famed Opéra National de Paris.

Sarah Adina Smith, based on A.K. Small’s 2019 novel ‘Bright Burning Stars,’ has a good sense for aesthetics. Or, to be more exact, the film’s alluring and, at times, bizarre visual quality is stunning. At one point, Kate and Marine go to an underground club called Jungle and engage in a psychedelic dance after consuming worms of some type.

Elsewhere, Smith’s exquisite camera movements depict the elegant flow of the dancers’ ballet performances. In terms of ballet performances, the overall choreography is excellent, while Ellen Reid’s moody soundscape suits the film’s ambiance. I especially like how Smith used chapter breaks between scenes, and how she made good use of the letter gap between the time remaining and the award on a bright pink background.

While ‘Birds of Paradise’ is a technical marvel, the tale is a mixed bag. Smith, who also adapted the screenplay, squanders her opportunity to explore more into Kate and Marine’s relationship. Diana Silvers and Kristine Froseth, two up-and-coming actors best known for their roles in 2019’s ‘Booksmart’ and Netflix’s ‘Sierra Burgess is a Loser’ (2018), are both well-cast in this picture. They look amazing together as two very different people from quite different backgrounds. And, on the surface, each of them does a terrific job depicting their parts, particularly Froseth’s cunning turn as Marine. In terms of the supporting actors, I was most struck by Jacqueline Bisset’s clinical performance as Madame Brunelle.

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The issue here is all of the hopeful hints that Smith appears to be striving for. I was half expecting the picture to go full throttle on the ‘Black Swan’-style storytelling method, but it lacks the psychological acuity of that great drama by Darren Aronofsky. There are also rumors that the film may offer a grim depiction of a vicious world of competitive ballet dancing, similar to Starz’s 2015 miniseries ‘Flesh and Bone.’ But, on the other hand, the film mainly lacks that required edge. If Smith had been ready to go a few steps farther and not make everything overly restricted or conventional, the outcome may have been an interesting piece of work.

Smith has already run out of steam by the time ‘Birds of Paradise’ reaches the predictable finale in which the ballet dancers compete for the prize, and he has missed an opportunity to close the picture on a riveting note.

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Birds of Paradise Review: Uninspired Storytelling Bogs Down Great Choreography
Birds of Paradise Review: Uninspired Storytelling Bogs Down Great Choreography
Birds of Paradise Review: Uninspired Storytelling Bogs Down Great Choreography
Birds of Paradise Review: Uninspired Storytelling Bogs Down Great Choreography
Birds of Paradise Review: Uninspired Storytelling Bogs Down Great Choreography
Birds of Paradise Review: Uninspired Storytelling Bogs Down Great Choreography
Birds of Paradise Review: Uninspired Storytelling Bogs Down Great Choreography
Birds of Paradise Review: Uninspired Storytelling Bogs Down Great Choreography

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