The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror Exhibition

Written by Isobel Holmes
Read the original blog post on Isobel’s website.

Arriving at the BFI Southbank

The Powell and Pressburger season has been a monumental treat for film fans and industry practitioners alike, but to truly complete this experience, is to pirouette down to the BFI Southbank Blue Room for their free exhibition, The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror. The Red Shoes, infamously described as the core of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s incredible film careers, is at the heart of the exhibition, showcasing props, costumes, artwork and mementos that bring this film the restoration it justly deserves. 

My experience of admiring displays at the Southbank has always been swift, a generous gift to see original film work, but always a short stay. Which is why I was absolutely blown away by the scale and detail of Beyond the Mirror on opening night. Not only is it a display, but an experience, centralising the iconic 12-minute dance number as their composition and allowing you (metaphorically) to step into those red shoes.

The exhibition begins with a long corridor, mirroring Victoria’s descent down the corridor of chaos, displaying Moira Shearer’s personal possessions (courtesy of her daughter) and journey to being cast in the lead role. The context of her dance background not only highlights her journey to becoming an actress, but also provides us a perspective to the exhibition, applying the plot and history of the film to her experience.

A photo of a young woman sitting, looking in a large mirror putting red fabric in her hair. The dressing table is adorned with roses and bouquets.

'...imagining impossible new ways to engage with our collections'

Another observation was how little they needed to convey a lot. I decided to re-watch The Red Shoes a few days prior, but ultimately didn’t need to. The organisation of the collection manages to provoke the same experience, whether you have seen the film many times, or never at all. I feel this was enhanced by their strict choice of artefacts. For example, Hein Heckroth’s concept art embellishes every room, anchoring the exhibition for the traditional art enthusiasts, which matches the devise of original props with recreations, bringing intrigue to the immersive devotees. The theatrical element is crucial, showcasing just how creative and revolutionary Powell and Pressburger were and honouring their legacy.

The conclusion ultimately leads to the titular red shoes, worn, faded and the most ordinary item in the room. But that lack of pristine encapsulates the hard work and journey of those who made the film, making for a sombre but gratifying moment as you leave the exhibition.

This exhibition initiates a turning point for the BFI, evolving their film curation to captivate a new generation of audiences. ‘The show is also a statement of intent; we’re imagining impossible new ways to showcase and to engage with our collections. This exhibition is without a precedent in a sense for the BFI,’ a representative stated. This transition could see a transformation of our relationship as spectators to our screen heritage, celebrating and honouring British Cinema. ‘The exhibition you’re about to see, the experience you’re about to have is new, it’s a way for us to truly bring you closer’ summarised their speech, and I believe they have achieved just that.

The fact that the exhibition is free to the public makes it all the more powerful, as we can start to see financial barriers being broken in the lead to film access for everyone, and building a stronger film archive. It provides access for those who can’t afford the cinema tickets, but still experience the intimacy. After all, it brings all the elements of the film industry together, deconstructing the impression that you can only learn and engage with films by watching them.

Overall, the curators have made a beautiful showcase, capturing the wonder and magnitude The Red Shoes had on cinema, through a fresh and absorbing form of presentation, that I hope we see again and again.

Isobel is part of Connaught Film Collective, a Young Film Programmer group based in Worthing.
Follow her on Instagram @isobel.emmaa and find out about her other work as a filmmaker and photographer on her website.
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