Natalie Portman became a movie star by playing luminous teenagers, and it’s been a problem for her ever since. Not because she’s allowed herself to be typecast, exactly; most of the roles she’s chosen in her twenties have been obviously calculated to prove that she’s a grown-up actress, and not just the lovely, fragile, watchful girl-child who dazzled in such films as The Professional and Heat. But despite having persuaded directors to cast her as a stripper, an army wife, a terrorist, and even a lustful, scheming Anne Boleyn, Portman remains a prisoner of her girlhood. At 29, she’s as luminous as ever, but she hasn’t demonstrated anything more than the most basic, marks-hitting competence in her attempts to play fully formed adults.
Her starring role in Darren Aronofsky’s ballet psychodrama, Black Swan, doesn’t break that pattern, because the character she’s playing, an up-and-coming ballerina named Nina Sayers, pretty obviously isn’t an adult. Nina is coddled, infantilized, neurotic, and quasi-virginal; she lives with her controlling, ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey) and sleeps in a hot-pink bedroom thronged with stuffed animals. Portman took a substantial risk by accepting this kind of part, since it’s an obvious step back from the kind of “I am woman, hear me roar” role that she’s been looking for. But the decision paid off handsomely: Black Swan is a reminder that when Portman’s in her comfort zone — and, in this case, embodying a character whose dilemmas bear some resemblance to her own — she can be absolutely transfixing.