I’ll say it up front – I don’t really like ballet. I don’t know a plié from a hole in the ground, so it is not all that surprising that movies about ballet have left me rather cold. I tried to like The Red Shoes because it was a cult classic, but Moira Shearer is just a lovely dancing doll, and Robert Helpmann is plain annoying (pace the old darling, I did like him as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.)
But the trailers for Mao’s Last Dancer looked good, and I’d read the book and found it absolutely enthralling. The movie, though, is strangely flat and unsatisfying, although not in the way that Chinese food is unsatisfying. At least with Chinese food you get the sense of having eaten, and you can produce evil belches afterwards if you’re that way inclined. But this movie was unsatisfying in the way that daytime television is unsatisfying. The acting is not good, the characters are two-dimensional, the plot is only mildly followable, and stories are told by flashbacks which effectively remove any real sense of continuity.
Oddly enough, the parts I enjoyed the most in Mao’s Last Dancer were the ballets. Vivid, lively, colourful, fast-moving, energetic and thoroughly entertaining, they were everything the rest of the movie wasn’t. As soon as we got back the plot, the movie once again became strangely lifeless and washed out. Most of the story is set in the 1980s, and Bruce Beresford has managed to make it look and feel like a movie made in the 1980s. I’m not sure that this was intentional, but I can even tell you which 1980s movies it felt like: The Year of Living Dangerously meets Mannequin.
The cast seems to be a mix of dancers and actors, including talented dancer Chi Cao from the Birmingham Royal Ballet as Li, with Australian ballerina Camilla Vergotis as his second wife Mary, who looks like a young Jeannie Little once she’s got her false eyelashes on. On the whole, it’s easy to tell the dancers from the actors. The actors are lively and interesting off the stage, and the dancers are lively and interesting on it, which is when the actors get to sit in the audience and assume a range of facial expressions along the lines of ‘amazement’, ‘rueful wonder’ and ‘satisfaction mixed with regret’. There are a few familiar faces, including Penne Hackforth-Jones as a snaky old ballet-bitch, and Jack Thompson in an unrecognisable cameo of wondrous wrinkliness.
I suppose what made me the most peeved was that China got soft-pedalled, especially very modern China. Beresford seems to be happy with the idea of Mr and Mrs Mao being fairly prize stinkers; and certainly the bit where Li gets trapped in the Chinese Embassy in Houston is extremely believable and very scary. But then, once we move into the 1990s, we are supposed to accept that China and its officials are very much kinder and nicer now to everyone, and will of course act in a civilised way. And so it ends with Everyone Being Friends, which is very helpful if you want to film on location, and also helps you to obtain funding in a country whose exports largely depend on the East remaining Red. In an interview with Encore which appeared on 23 September 2009, Beresford claimed that Chinese officials asked him to remove all references to Mao and Jiang Qing from the script, insisted he not show her trial, and asked that he include a section at the end which shows “how China is now very modern”. Beresford claimed he simply ignored all of this, but I retain a healthy scepticism about the last part, at least.
If you like movies about ballet, you’ll probably get a huge kick out of this. If not, I’d suggest you stay home with a book, and that book is Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin. In fact, go out and buy a new copy: that way he gets some hard-earned royalties, and you will have a hugely enjoyable read, and will have spent about the same sum of money as going to the movies.