Robert Altman has made a career out of exploring self-enclosed worlds: the country music scene in Nashville, '30s jazz in Kansas City, high-fashion in Prêt-à-Porter and Hollywood itself in The Player. Here, the 78-year-old director turns his attentions to modern dance, The Company unspooling as an impressionistic tribute to The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.
What makes The Company interesting - - certainly more interesting than a film about ballet has any right to be - - is that it's everything you'd expect of Altman... Yet markedly different. So while fans of the veteran helmer's output will recognise the slender plot, the deep-focus photography and the fragmented scenes, Altman dipping into snatches of conversation, they'll be shocked to find that The Company isn't one of his acerbic satires. In fact, the tone here is one of warmth, the old curmudgeon apparently bowled over by the unwavering discipline of these talented, underpaid, overworked dancers.
At the movie's heart is Ry, played by screen star and former National Ballet of Canada student Neve Campbell, a young talent who gets her big break when a colleague drops out injured. Not that the promotion brings the bucks or the easy life: Ry continues to work shifts as a waitress to pay the rent and her hectic schedule leaves little time to relax with her new boyfriend, Josh (Spider-Man's James Franco).
Campbell's good, but the best performance on show here is Malcolm McDowell, who escapes his typecasting as a criminal to play the autocratic-yet-benevolent Antonelli, artistic director of the company. Yes, it's hard to credit him as an Italian-American, but his barking one-liners are impossible to resist. What's more, it's entirely likely that Antonelli is a self-portrait of Altman. Look at the way he choreographs his charges, striving to avoid phoniness and always alert to the financial cost of artistic suggestions.
A paean to professionalism and athleticism, The Company also makes for mesmerising viewing, combining movement, music and colour to strangely hypnotic effect. As Antonelli says, "It's not the steps, darling. It's what's inside the steps that counts."