After Tom Hanks and his “big bad chain store” force Meg Ryan’s sweet little children’s bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner, out of business in Nora Ephron’s 1998 cinematic charmer You’ve Got Mail, she visits Hanks’ business for herself in a heartbreaking scene. And in the film, inspired by not only Lubitsch’s original movie (The Shop Around the Corner) as well as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Ryan winds up in the children’s department where her expertise on the subject matter is quickly required when a clueless salesperson is unable to identify a customer’s request for the “Shoe books” or their author. Immediately recognizing the source, Ryan snaps away from self-pity and into helpful attention, sharing through tears, “Noel Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes and Skating Shoes and Theater Shoes and Movie Shoes… I'd start with Skating Shoes, it's my favorite, although Ballet Shoes is completely wonderful.”
And ever since that moment, I’ve been fascinated by not only the Shoes series but Noel Streatfeild as well. Yet it’s always a sad fact of a hectic twenty-first century life filled with multi-tasking that there aren’t often enough hours in the day to squeeze in the reading we’d love to do with the reading we’re forced to do for school and work. Thus, I’d forgotten all about my promise to track down Ballet Shoes but was recently reminded this month by my mother who returned from the movies gushing about a trailer she’d seen for a cinematic adaptation of Streatfeild’s classic Ballet Shoes.
Originally produced for Granada Television for the BBC and adapted by screenwriter Heidi Thomas and director Sandra Goldbacher (Me Without You, The Governess), Ballet Shoes premiered during Christmas of 2007 to great success in the UK. And it’s getting the royal treatment for its American debut, opening in limited theatrical release this week before its DVD from KOCH Vision hits shelves on September 2. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that despite its late summer release that the film's popularity should build steadily not only as there’s so few worthwhile films for young women but it also stars Harry Potter’s very own Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) in a refreshingly feminine and challenging period performance.
Although in an intelligent and thoughtful twenty minute interview included on the DVD, Emma Watson admits that she’d never read the 1936 classic, she phoned her grandmother who shared her own love for Ballet Shoes as a girl, saying that it was not only a personal favorite but changed her outlook on life in its illustration that everything is possible. And it’s that message that still shines through more than seventy years later in this delightful and high quality adaptation.
In its opening credit sequence, Shoes is reminiscent of The Secret Garden as we encounter the young Sylvia Brown who dressed in dark mourning wear arrives — with her devoted Nana in tow — to live at the house of Sylvia’s only living relative after the death of her parents. Although Sylvia’s uncle, Professor Matthew Brown (Richard Griffiths), an eccentric paleontologist and globe-trotting explorer, is initially hesitant to let a child into his life, they soon grow attached to one another. And just as quickly, after she grows into a young woman in her own right (now played by Emilia Fox) and his travels continuously take him away from home for extended periods of time, she’s startled when he begins sending back his own version of “fossils” from his expeditions.
For — unlike traditional fossils — the eternally caring professor, who seems to be always in the wrong place at the right time, first rescues an orphaned baby aboard the Titanic and sends her back to be raised by his own charge and Nana (Victoria Wood), only to repeat the process two additional times before he disappears altogether. Soon without the means to send the three girls — Pauline (Watson), Petrova (Yasmin Paige), and Posy Fossil (Lucy Boynton) — to receive a traditional education, Sylvia has to rely on her ingenuity and determination to keep things afloat.
After taking in a group of free-spirited boarders, including two elderly female professors, she’s able to entrust their academic math and literature-based education directly to them. However, in realizing that the world isn’t kind to girls who can’t support themselves, Sylvia takes the advice of her bewitching and bold boarder, the former dancer Theo Dane (Lucy Cohu) who encourages Sylvia to enroll the girls in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training.
While Posy Fossil, who had arrived special delivery with only her birth mother’s pair of beautiful pink satin ballet shoes to her name, shows a naturally prodigious aptitude for dance, Pauline finds herself drawn to the stage. Soon, the girls begin earning enough money to help out their beloved caretaker “Garnie,” who seems to be increasingly stressed by not just the financial and time-consuming struggle and poor health but also fear that too much ambition and fame isn’t the right thing to encourage for her adored girls.
Yet even though Posy and Pauline seem thrilled by their feminine and artistic studies, the tomboy Petrova is far more hesitant, going along to auditions out of duty and loyalty, but with a serious passion towards finding “roads in the sky” in becoming a female pilot like her hero Amy Johnson. Her love of engines is encouraged by Sylvia’s charming male boarder Mr. Simpson (Marc Warren), for whom Sylvia seems to have developed romantic feelings as we realize that much to our heartbreak—in a life spent in service to the three bright girls—she’s never been able to allow herself to consider her own wants and needs.
Ballet Shoes: The Official Theatrical Trailer
With gorgeous cinematography by Catherine Ashmore (view the photo gallery), Ballet Shoes is one of those enchanting movies that, although set in the 1930s, seems all the more incredible for the vital pre-feminist messages set forth by Streatfeild in her text. As the girls routinely state on their birthdays and Christmas that “we three Fossils vow to put our name in the history books, because it is ours, and ours alone and no one can say it’s because of our grandfathers,” they truly seek to achieve their dreams on their own terms, never taking shortcuts or depending on a man to get them there and it’s all the more amazing when you realize the original publication date of the novel.
Featuring subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired along with deleted scenes, the beautiful DVD transfer also includes a valuable interview with Watson sure to impress her fans as she compares and contrasts working on this film with Potter and reflects on the film itself, as well as an audiobook excerpt (read by Elizabeth Sastre) and limited edition mini-poster.
Recommended by The Dove Foundation as worthwhile “family entertainment,” and highly recommended by this enthusiastic reviewer, Goldbacher’s film is the best one I’ve seen aimed at young female audiences this year, surpassing even the superlative Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery (which incidentally took place in the same era except here in the states). Additionally, Ballet Shoes is one sure to touch the hearts of viewers — especially females — of all ages whether they’re just getting their first pair of pink slippers, taking aviation lessons, running a shop around the corner, or tucking their grandchildren in at night.