moviereview colin fraser film movie australia review critic flicks
It has been some time since Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) hit our screens in any meaningful way. The Contract (2006) went straight-to-video, Evelyn (2002) slid through cinemas with barely a whimper. Thus it is something of a relief to find him back on form in this Australian production abut the life of a celebrated ballet dancer. Working from Jan Sardi's (Shine) pacey adaptation of Li Cunxin's memoirs, and energised by Peter James' (Paradise Road) gripping cinematography, Mao's Last Dancer is the consummate crowd-pleaser.

Li (Chi Cao) was plucked from obscurity by Madame Mao's cultural elite in the closing hours of her husband's despotic rule. Sent to Beijing as a young boy determined to do right by his family, he became the toast of Chinese ballet and earned the honour of leading an exchange to Houston where, to the horror of his guardians and his hosts, he defects. This is the backbone on which Sardi explores Cunxin's emotional, political and ethical conflict amid a young man's emerging self-determination.

Beresford is a traditional, no frills filmmaker and succeeds in fashioning a moving memoir into a thrilling movie. Truth is, ballet has the capacity to kill cinema stone dead yet he teases out the emotional resonance that keeps the story well and truly alive. Which is not to say that dance sequences are put aside. Rejecting close focus and fast cuts, Beresford keeps the camera, and the audience, fluidly engaged in the film's central, athletic aestheticism. He's helped by an exceptional cast – handsome newcomer Chi Cao exudes a captivatingly innocent resolve, Bruce Greenwood as Li's American mentor returns yet another compelling performance. Joan Chen as the boy's mother rounds out a soaring experience. Mao's Last Dancer is the kind of vigorous, character driven historical drama at which the director excels. It's Beresford at his best.

moviereview colin fraser film movie australia review critic flicks