“Ballet Shoes” takes a kindly, impassioned view of the hungry heart, as seen through the eyes of women left to their own devices once abandoned by their loved ones. It’s a caloric helping of melodrama, but it’s rendered effective by the exceptional performances and observant direction by the vastly talented Sandra Goldbacher.
Brought together by a kindly, adventurous geologist (Richard Griffiths) in the 1920s, three orphans, actress Pauline (Emma Watson, the “Harry Potter” series), tomboy Petrova (Yasmin Paige), and aspiring ballet dancer Posy (Lucy Boynton), have been raised by harried caretaker Sylvia (Emilia Fox, “Cashback”). Struggling to make ends meet, Sylvia unenthusiastically allows the girls to raise their educational standards, sending them to be taught the cruel ways of stage performance. While Pauline finds triumph as an actress, the bills keep mounting, exacerbating Sylvia’s medical conditions and threatening to break up the happy home, now stocked with supportive boarders. Faced with disaster, the girls make a vow to achieve monetary success, hoping to cultivate their true passion for life along the way.
My only real qualm with “Ballet Shoes” lies in the picture’s running time. Clocking in at less than 90 minutes, the material, adapted from the 1936 novel by Noel Streatfeild, has been greatly condensed, a quality sure to be noticed by even the most disinterested of viewers. There’s a certain snap of catastrophe that routinely rolls over the film, exhausting the characters as they march from one emotional disaster zone to the next. It keeps the picture on high alert as the sisters take on the world unprepared for the disappointment that follows.
Of course, there is something to be said about this stripped-down attack on the source material. While the episodic sprinting tends to smudge the characterization of the fringe players (the boarder personalities suffer the most), it keeps “Ballet” tightly paced and free of dramatic potholes. Focusing on the professional exertion of the sisters and Sylvia’s growing loneliness, Goldbacher maintains a compassionate verve to the picture, lending the film an air of “Little Women” scrapes as the girls slowly morph into their adult roles when the demands of life challenge their personal desires. There’s little time to wallow in the melodrama, and the speed benefits the overall experience, extending the freshness of the tale further than expected.
As observed in her previous features “The Governess” and “Me Without You,” Goldbacher is superlative with actors, highly skilled at capturing the degrees of response while cinematically painting with appropriate broadness. “Ballet Shoes” features a wonderful mixture of veterans and newcomers, and the blend proves useful to the material’s themes of hesitant personal development. Of course, all eyes are on Watson here, in her first major role away from the Hermione comfort zone. The young star fits right in as the hopeful actress, giving the camera a tart offering of ego and combustible English pride. In fact, the three young leads do the material justice, extracting the right amount of heartbreak and jubilation as dreams are both achieved and destroyed.
Serving as the beacon of financial reality for “Ballet” is practical Sylvia, winningly portrayed by Emilia Fox. The actress forms the spine of the story, graciously extending the foreground to her co-stars, while maintaining a consistent mood of reservation in the background. The character is a vivid frayed thread of emotions, and Goldbacher is cautious to silently weave the performance throughout the film to undercut any saccharine temptations. It’s a beautiful piece of acting.
“Ballet Shoes” doesn’t breathe in the textures of the novel with any sort of profound adaptation admiration. The film is more of a race, not a journey. However, it’s a pleasing examination of adolescent struggle, containing the ideal amount of calamity and period social frustration to service the story in a pleasurable, sincere fashion.