24 Frames: Anna Pavlova / The White Swan (1983)
Rootling through a charity shop some months ago, I found a DVD of a 1985 biopic entitled Anna Pavlova. I’d never heard of it but, being a diehard ballet fan, I couldn’t resist, especially as the box intriguingly proclaimed that it was directed by the great Michael Powell, with a cast including the unlikely combination of Roy Kinnear and Martin Scorsese.
Sadly, it really wasn’t good. The dubbing was dreadful and the plot jerked awkwardly, although Galina Belyayeva looked lovely as the legendary Russian ballerina and some scenes showed a visual flair worthy of the director of the greatest of all dance films, The Red Shoes. It looked in sum like a botched job, and I wondered why some reference books listed one Emil Loteanu as the director, with Powell reduced to associate producer.
The back story has now been revealed by the Greek-born, London-based producer Frixos Constantine, who in tribute to his affection and admiration for Powell has personally raised more than a million pounds to make a restorative new edition of the film, retitled The White Swan and over twice as long as my bargain DVD version.
Constantine first met Powell in the early 1970s when the latter was languishing as the forgotten man of British cinema, his partnership with Emeric Pressburger (which resulted in masterpieces such as I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus, as well as The Red Shoes) eclipsed by the Nouvelle Vague and gritty Sixties realism.
Powell wanted Constantine’s collaboration on a project to film The Tempest on a Greek island, with James Mason as Prospero and Malcolm McDowell as Ariel. But despite the support of the Greek minister of culture, Melina Mercouri, no British backing could be found. Powell had virtually been blacklisted after the flop of his film Peeping Tom and the idea withered away.
By the end of the 1970s, Powell had been rediscovered, largely through the championing of the fashionable young director Martin Scorsese, whose editor Thelma Schoonmaker would become Powell’s third wife in 1984.
“Michael first met Marty in my office,” Constantine recalls. “[Scorsese] was a strange, thin little man. Michael didn’t at first take him seriously or approve of his lifestyle. But later he came to recognise his intelligence and hold him in high regard.”
Emboldened by the revival of his reputation, Powell now proposed to Constantine another ambitious scheme: a return to the world of Russian ballet and The Red Shoes in the shape of a five-hour mini-series about Pavlova, for which he had drafted a screenplay requiring extensive Russian locations. The budget would be $35 million.
Constantine – at that time mainly a documentary producer – gulped at the challenge but decided to accept it. Paramount contributed $3 million, but the difficult bit was raising the remainder from the Russian Ministry of Cinema during the freeze of the Brezhnev era.
After a long wait and the usual stonewalling negotiations, however, the Russians agreed The Red Shoes was very popular behind the Iron Curtain, and they liked the prestige of associating a non-political Russian subject with a famous foreign director.
All sorts of problems remained. Scorsese entered the picture, offering to play a cameo role and persuading his friends Jack Nicholson to play Pavlova’s husband and Robert De Niro her agent. This would have worked marvels at the box office, but the Russians vetoed De Niro because he had appeared in the anti-Communist film The Deer Hunter and Nicholson because he had made rude remarks about the Soviet regime.
But Powell was delighted with the casting of Galina Belyayeva as Pavlova. A young ballerina who had also trained as an actress, Belyayeva did, as Constantine recalls, “everything and more she was asked to do without any airs or graces.
“We spent two years filming all over the world with a Russian crew and choreographer. A lot of time was wasted waiting for visas, and we had M15 and the KGB on our tails sniffing for defectors. But the biggest issue was that both the Russians and Paramount wanted a two-hour cinema release, whereas Michael always conceived of it as a five-hour television mini-series.”
Thelma Schoonmaker agreed to help with the editing. She thought she could just about get it down to two hours 40 minutes, but Paramount insisted on butchering it to two hours 10 minutes, and there was more humiliation to come.
“The post-production, including the dubbing and synching was terrible, and the version that was originally released was artistically a disaster,” Constantine explains. “For reasons of national prestige, the Russians decided that a Russian citizen Emil Loteanu should be credited as sole director and Michael was demoted to associate producer. What could we do to fight back? We had run out of money, and at that time I simply did not have the experience for such a complicated work.”
Nevertheless, Constantine kept an interpositive negative of the full five-hour version, and handed it to Goldcrest for storage. When the rights reverted after Powell’s death in 1990, Constantine set about raising the money to finish the job properly in honour of his beloved friend’s last work. A setback came when it emerged that Goldcrest had lost the negative in the course of moving warehouses, but fortunately it transpired that the Russians had kept a copy in Mosfilm’s vault in Vladivostok.
New scenes, including two ballet sequences, have been shot for this definitive five-hour version, and a completely new soundtrack dubbed in, for which Galina Belyayeva speaks English in her own voice. James Fox, who replaced Jack Nicholson as Pavlova’s husband, has pronounced the result “completely Michael Powell’s film”, and it is indeed a thing of ravishing beauty with an old-fashioned charm that bears the master’s hallmark.
NHK in Japan, Arte in France and PBS in the USA are jostling to buy broadcasting rights. Is it too much to hope that The White Swan will also be seen on British television?
Rupert Christiansen – Telegraph
Nota: Malditos comunistas, irão queimar eternamente no inferno. Ao menos aqui pode-se lidar com as pessoas reais que foram homenageadas em Red Shoes, a loucura de Dieglev já conhecido como Boris Lermontov e de Pavlova outrora encarnada como Vicky (triplicada por Nijinsky e Massine, é claro), embora o incidente com o trem tenha sido bem outro, mas não menos amaldiçoado.