Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Margot" from 1.12.2009

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2009
´╗┐Following "Enid" and "Gracie!", BBC 4's "Women We Loved" series, which explored the agonies of fame, concluded with "Margot"  Based upon Meredith Daneman's authoritative biography, the screenplay was written by Amanda Coe, who also wrote the excellent "Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story."

Directed by Otto Bathurst, the film presented the latter part of the career of Peggy Hookham, born in Reigate in Surrey in 1919, who was to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, the only prima ballerina assoluta of the Royal Ballet.

The title role amongst a heavy-weight cast was brilliantly played by the exquisite Anne-Marie Duff. Already of a certain age at the beginning of the film, the camera lingers long and often on the elegant and charismatic Margot who has a chameleon-like quality.

With her almost bulging childlike eyes, her face has a waif-like quality, not unlike Edith Piaf. The similarities do not end there for in that small, lithe body we have countless contradictions - the girl from the poor background applying herself to rise to the very highest level of her art.

We see the blood, sweat and tears literally entailed in dance training and the adulation heaped upon its greatest and most glamorous star.

Never a classical beauty, we learn of the cosmetic surgery on her nose and face and the pain from her arthritic feet. The blood soaked ballet slipper at the end of a performance may be a cliche, but here it reflected the truth. It was the price paid for the thirty two successive fouettees performed by Odette/Odille in "Swan Lake," arduous enough for any ballerina, let alone one over the age of forty.  
   
Margot had worked and fought her way to achieve her success and global reputation. The pragmatic and almost cynical attitude of Ninette de Valois, acutely played by Lindsay Duncan, towards her slightly waning star, demonstrated the precarious quality of the hard-won fame of even a pre-eminent ballerina.

Before Nureyev's defection, Margot was a jet-setting superstar and icon, rubbing shoulders with Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor and really was "on the biscuit tins" (like Princess Diana was later to be "on the tea towels.") Staying at the top of the profession was as challenging as the ascent to success.

At this point Margot seemed to be "on the cusp" artistically. Clearly the Seymours and other up-and-coming ballerinas were laying claim to her crown and the physical demands of her art were taking their toll. The Royal Ballet even reduced her status to "visiting" artist rather than permanent prima ballerina. Dark clouds were massing on the horizon.

Then Nureyev appeared. The personal and artistic chemistry they forged elevated them even higher in the pantheon of an art form already predisposed to immortalise its leading figures.

This story begins with Nureyev's defection to the West in 1961. A wildly passionate bohemian, Nureyev sets out his stall from the beginning, impetuously getting a taxi from the airport to Margot's home, instead of meekly awaiting the car she had sent for him.

Nureyev, played by Michael Huisman, is head-turningly handsome and vital to the core. He is exotic and roughly sensual and his connection with Margot is evident from the outset. First sight of the hunky newcomer prompted Puck-like Sir Frederick Ashton, played by Sir Derek Jacobi, to gasp through a cloud of Silk Cut "Fu** me darling, he's better than Nijinsky. " He was not a bad judge, but it is not reported whether the reknowned choreographer also continued "And vada the bona lallies and dolly old eek."

We see the frisson created by contact between the pair hot, sweaty and panting in the rehearsal room. The atmosphere is electric and this supercharged partnership translated to the stage and allegedly the bedroom.

We see a raunchy love scene between Nureyev and Margot, twenty years his senior. Their liaisons are confirmed by Frederick Ashton, who saucily comments with more than a hint of Gielgud, that the boy had certainly "***ked the old girl into shape." Confusingly, in real life, it appears Ashton remarked that their relationship was platonic.

The did-they, didn't-they? question overhangs the play tiresomely. On the pro side, each was a highly-sexed athlete whose job required the closest of physical contact, separated by only the thinnest layer of lycra. Both were sensual, headstrong and emotional artists during the hedonistic height of the swinging 60's, all of which make it plausible that their friendship extended to the bedroom.

On the con side, Nureyev appears to have been predominantly gay. He certainly made no secret of long and short term relationships with men even whilst living under Margot's roof.

On the whole, I am inclined to believe that Rudolf was a bi- or pan-sexual faun as first presented by Diaghilev and that he and Margot were for a time lovers. It seems entirely understandable that the exhilaration of the dizzy heights to which their artistic partnership in the most ardent and physical of art forms should have taken them should find expression sexually.

Margot's uninhibited sexuality is also very apparent in her relationship with her husband, the philandering Panamanian diplomat, Roberto/Tito Arias, played by Con O'Neill. His, somewhat seedy, Arias has vocal mannerisms somewhere between Marlon Brando's Godfather and Ari Onassis, but his performance is rivetting.

We are introduced to Arias in the elegant high-ceilinged London drawing room when they meet again when one or both have been abroad. They couple excitedly clothed as though it were a clandestine liaison in a car park and then adjust their dress, pick up their gin and tonics and resume their conversation.

We learn that Arias pursued the celebrated ballerina for years. She, in her way, seems fascinated by his raffish charm. There is no doubt that during their long separations often on different continents Arias had affairs, which adds weight to the likelihood of Margot having a physical relationship with Nureyev.

The lifestyle of Arias seems to be taken from some B-feature movie starring George Raft. We learn of Arias smuggling liquor and leading a failed coup in Panama. Ultimately in 1964 he was left paralysed after an attempt on his life. This was possibly after one dalliance too many with the wife of his opponent.

When Arias is injured, Margot flies to his side and nobly applies ice cubes to his parched lips and sleeps on the floor next to his hospital bed. For this nobility the paralysed Arias typically rewards his wife by fumbling at the starched bosom of the ward sister. Even paralysis, it seems, does not stop a cad being a cad.

Throughout the play we see extracts from various ballets. Margot speaks of the exotic stories from Swan Lake to Giselle involving transformation from princesses to swans, love, adventure, madness, death and spirits.   
   
Scenes from the ballet are recreated under intense spotlights, giving a dreamlike quality. The viewer expects a crescendo of applause to follow, but there is only silence.

The more shocking events in Margot's life are treated similarly, as when she hears of the attempted assassination of Arias. She flees through more dimly-lit empty high ceilinged rooms and is eventually cradled in the arms of Nureyev in a comforting pas de deux.

The viewer is intended to make the connection between the overlap between the high drama of the ballet and Margot's own life. She adopts the role of heroine in numerous ballets and, with no thought for herself, does the same in real life. There is little distinction between the two.

As with most biopics, there seems to be one event or even thought which the writer considers the key to the soul of the subject. The clue to this sometimes comes from a parent who is often at least partially responsible for a particular trait or even kink.

In the case of Enid Blyton, her emotional development was stunted by the departure of her philandering father. Gracie Fields seems to have been seeking a way to let go of the ever-accelerating Rochdale tram that she had grabbed hold of as a young girl and from which she could never seem to release her grip.

For Margot, her mother BQ, assuredly played by Penelope Wilton, refers to her daughter's coping mechanism from childhood of packaging up elements of her life into neat boxes and stowing then away.

Considering the complexities of Margot's life as an ageing prima ballerina, this is entirely plausible. Margot is a pragmatist. She addresses problems and moves on. She improves her elocution with lessons and her nose and face with cosmetic surgery. Her arthritic feet are medicated or she just bears the pain. She overcomes a decline in her career by forging a famous partnership that thrills the world. Her husband is a philanderer and she compensates by an implausible affair with her new co-star. Her husband is injured and she sacrifices herself to be by his bedside and exhausts herself to earn the huge sums required to fund his private health care. She even learns to require payment by paper bags stuffed with cash.

Looking into Margot's slightly bewildered faun-like eyes during several recreated television interviews, one is never entirely sure that she completely grasps everything that is going on. Paradoxically, however, the dedicated and hard-working prima ballerina has tied up all the loose ends and each problem is neatly parcelled complete with its gorgeous bow.

What is unclear however is the extent to which Margot always succeeded in distinguishing the extreme romance of the exotic plot of the ballet from the melodrama, heights of adulation and depths of despair of her real life. Once each element was neatly in its box, it must have been difficult to distinguish one from the other.

As ever with biopics, the sting comes with the pithy statements over the end credits. We learn that Margot continued to perform into her 60's, despite being ravaged by arthritis brought on by the rigours of a dancer's life. Margot and Arias retired to live in poverty on a Panamanian ranch followed by their respective reletively early deaths. Thus everything that one feared fate had in store for them tragically came to pass, as it did with the death of Nureyev from AIDs some years later.

Unlike "Enid" and "Gracie!", it was difficult to grasp everything that "Margot" had to say. More questions were left unanswered. The viewer is not certain whether Margot and Rudolf were lovers. Nor is it clear whether the price paid for global superstardom and an ascent to the absolute summit of grace and beauty in the art of ballet was worth the physical and emotional agonies it entailed. Armed with her capacity to pack up and put away life's problems and a comprehensive blurring of the margins of art and real life, I suspect that Margot Fonteyn prima ballerina assoluta would not have had it any other way.

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