Posted May 30, 2011 by editor in Film Reviews

Isadora Review

Hard on the prancing heels of Black Swan and Herzog’s Pina skips the re-mastered re-release of Isadora, the 1968 biopic of American modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan (1877–1927). It’s easy to see why the late 60s adopted Duncan, a free-spirited, proto-feminist, Communist and bohemian, as an icon. How proto-feminist? Margaret Drabble is credited with ‘additional dialogue’. This is, after all, the story of a woman who celebrated her 12th birthday by vowing never to marry and then incinerated her parents’ marriage certificate to seal the deal. Sure, there are men in this film but they’re only here to show how much better off without them Duncan was.

Vanessa Redgrave was seemingly born to play Isadora Duncan, dancer or not. There are obvious parallels between their lives, even if some of them hadn’t happened when this film was released; the supporting of controversial political causes (in Duncan’s case it was Soviet Russia, in Redgrave’s it’s Palestine), the absolute commitment to artistic integrity, and the personal tragedies. Casting in a biopic wasn’t to get this perfect again until Stephen Fry tackled Wilde.

Director Karel Reisz and screenplay writers Melvyn Bragg and Clive Exton could have taken the populist route and focused on Duncan’s unconventional sex life and occasional instances of public nudity – instead, there is dancing. Lots and lots of dancing. Despite being beautiful where Duncan was famously plain, Redgrave proves herself to be a damn good hoofer: no body doubles required. She’s aided by the fact that Duncan was self-taught, and didn’t believe in pushing the body beyond its own range. As a result, ballet fans looking for dizzying fouettes and eye-watering flexibility won’t find much to marvel at here. As an actor, however, Redgrave uses her emotional range and lean, almost lanky, body to create fairly believable reproductions of the ‘Duncan Experience’. (She didn’t have much to go on beyond photographs and written accounts – the sole surviving film of Duncan is only five seconds long.) At times, Reisz films Redgrave from low angles that make her look monumental.

Redgrave also captures something darker at the heart of Duncan’s chaotic existence and near-obsessive dedication to her art: what the box cover describes as “naïve, effervescent radiance”, Redgrave conveys as something closer to manic depression. There are tears, and fights, and drunkenness, and spontaneous knees-ups, and the ardent pursuit of total strangers. At one point my viewing companion muttered “This is the maddest film ever”. Duncan might have been fun at parties, but she was bloody impossible to live with. Isadora is based largely on Duncan’s autobiography, which makes Redgrave’s ability to elicit her subject’s less attractive qualities all the more remarkable. It’s almost as amazing as the then 30 year-old Redgrave’s convincing on-camera journey from fearless adolescence to grief-stricken middle age.

The only bum note is the ending, in which Duncan’s grisly demise happens on-camera with unintentionally comedic results. It seems almost disrespectful, especially given the more restrained treatment of the drowning of her two young children. On the plus side, the amazing scenery (it was filmed on location in Yugoslavia, England, France, Croatia and Italy), costumes and decadent interiors, along with all the theatre pieces, make Isadora quite the feast for the eyes. Special mention has to go the scene set in Moscow where Duncan, clad only in a tunic and with her hair dyed red, performs for the Red Army by lamplight.

This reissue comes with more extras than you can shake a stick at, including the aforementioned five second clip of La Duncan herself, a clip from 70s art show Aquarius featuring some marvellous period fashions from the host and his guest and Lynn Seymour dancing a tribute to Duncan, and a full-length Royal Ballet performance of Isadora. Like the woman herself it’s all quite overwhelming; you should go out and buy this reissue at once.

Clare Moody