Women We Loved: Margot (BBC Four, 2009)

Synopsis: Approaching her retirement, prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn (Anne-Marie Duff) aspires to settle down with her diplomat husband Tito Arias (Con O’Neill) in his home country of Panama. Tito has used Margot’s money to fund several unsuccessful coups, so she must keep dancing.  Luckily, the young Russian maverick, Rudolph Nureyev (Michiel Huisman) revives her enthusiasm for dancing.  Their passionate onstage relationship escalates into an offstage love affair, but Margot’s life is changed forever after Tito is shot during an assassination attempt.  

Anne-Marie Duff in Margot

Anne-Marie Duff and Michiel Huisman in Margot

Body double and actors’ faces melded fairly seamlessly.

Margot was both the audiences’ and critics’ least favourite of the Women We Loved films, but I liked it best of the three.  This may be because I’m a sucker for Romantic music and, because the film is set in the world of ballet, there is plenty of Chopin, Satie and, of course,  Tchaikovsky. The film also boasts some lovely, artful dance sequences which I’m sure are irritating to ballet aficionados, but, to me, do a good job of integrating shots of Anne-Marie Duff’s and Michiel Huisman’s face, arm and torso with shots of their professional stand-ins.

Penelope Wilton Anne-Marie Duff and Lindsay Duncan, Margot

The women in Margot’s life – Madame (Linsday Duncan) and Mother (Penelope Wilton)

Outside of the dancing, there are real acting treats in Margot – Lindsay Duncan is underused but instantly effective as Madame (Ninette de Valois), sour-faced, pursed-lipped and implacable. Penelope Wilton plays Margot’s ambitious and overbearing but  caring mother with her usual quiet dignity.

Derek Jacobi and Anne-Marie Duff in Margot

Cigarette in one hand, cup of tea in the other. What could be more English for the “inventor of English ballet”, Frederick Ashton (Derek Jacobi)?

Derek Jacobi is clearly enjoying himself playing Frederick Ashton, the gregarious and gloriously indiscreet choreographer of the royal ballet, waving fagash around the studio and making comments like “Fuck me, darling, he’s better than Nijinksy!” talking, of course, about Rudolph Nureyev.  Huisman plays him with oodles of swagger, but his eyes lack the fierceness of Nureyev’s.  Duff’s performance of Margot emphasises her gentleness, and she does manage to capture, to some degree, the naughty glint that is sometimes faintly visible in her face when photographed or interviewed.

The film utilises the narrative device throughout of an implied series of (television?) talking head interviews.  The voice of the female interviewer, who we assume is just offscreen, is heard asking Margot questions which accommodate the story, and allow her to reflect on events that are happening around her.  Her reflections, though, rarely match the ‘reality’ of what we have seen on screen.

Anne-Marie Duff as Margot Fonteyn

Indeed, more often the interview material emphasises the extent to which Margot, as she puts it herself, ‘leads a double life’: the fantasy woman onstage, the flesh-and-blood human being in ‘real life’.   Except that we are asked to question if there is such a binary at work here, or if Margot is, in fact, both?  This is made clear in the dialogue through Tito’s persistent accusations that Margot cannot distinguish between ballet stories and ‘real life’ – “How much make-believe is there in that head of yours?!” he asks her.  The blurred lines between fantasy and ‘reality’ are also conjured by the dance sequences: it is unclear if these are diegetically real or taking place in Margot’s imagination. She only seems to think and feel through her body.

In the use of the interview conceit to show Margot’s flexible relationship with the ‘truth’,  the film seems to have borrowed an aspect of Fonteyn’s real life: her often dishonest relationship with the press.  Her biographer Meredith Daneman has it that:

Certainly from the time she took up with Arias, she adopted a far less placatory tone with the press, brazenly lying to them if need be.

It is certainly the question of her marriage that reveals the largest gap between ‘reality’ and Margot’s version of events (echoing the earlier Women We Loved film, Enid).  We have seen that Tito is an exploitative and less than faithful husband, who consistently undermines her career in order to advance his own.  “You must admit” he proclaims of his revolutionary activities in Panama “It’s more exciting than tripping around on your toes with nancy boys.”

Margot’s marriage to Tito is sustained by her ballet – she pays for his revolutionary activities and, after he is shot, his medical bills – but is also consistently threatened by it.  Tito wants her to give up the ballet to become emphatically HIS wife, an ambition that Margot claims to share.  Her actions are more difficult to read – does she continue for financial reasons, or is she really unable to give up the stage life, the only life she has known, and for which she has made untold personal and physical sacrifices?

Margot surgeonThe litany of personal sacrifices – including changing her name, and not having children – are detailed in a climactic showdown with Mother, who refuses to allow the most successful ballerina of her generation to feel sorry for herself.  The physical ones – which, as Black Swan so vividly reminds us are liable to horrify – are dealt with more coyly. We see Margot suffer pain and tiredness in class, we know she injects her feet to keep her agony from affecting her performance, and we see her in closeup, face contorted by the hands of a plastic surgeon who will keep her young enough to play 13-year old Juliet at the age of 45.  But only in the final intertitle, which reminds us that Margot Fonteyn continued dancing into her 60s despite crippling arthritis, do we get the palpable sense of the toll Margot’s delayed retirement took on the woman.

As a meditation on the question of retirement and its impact upon personal identity, then, Margot is compelling.  It is also strong as a portrayal of someone whose physical expressiveness is excessive, to the exclusion of thinking or, really, feeling.  But as a biographical portrait it has its shortcomings, especially the creation of a melodramatic villain from the husband who, by her own account at least, Fonteyn truly adored, and a romantic hero of Nureyev, consigned to a role too minor to convey his mercurial character in a satisfying way.  I doubt that any ‘real life’ drama involving Fonteyn and Nureyev could ever be made as captivating as the duo in movement onstage.

 Margot is available on DVD.

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