“The White Crow” is director Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare‘s stately and stolid screen biography of the great Soviet ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, zeroing in on events that led to his defection to the West in 1961.
It captures the graceful athleticism of this groundbreaking star of the modern ballet, and his personality — defiant, narcissistic, resentful and downright rude, an egomaniac who used that ego as his shield against Soviet repression and Russian classism.
The great ones always figure the sun rises and sets on their glory, and that’s the Nureyev (played by Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko) we see here — mercurial, impulsive, inclined to answer a question with as much arrogance as he could muster, even in his earliest years as a professional.
“Did you dance tonight?”
“If I had danced, you would remember.”
Hare, who adapted “The Hours” and “The Reader” for the big screen, builds a conventional movie narrative out of this life, framing it with scenes in Paris in May of 1961, when the dancer was star of the Kirov Ballet and on his first trip to the West — the first trip of any Soviet dance company to the West since the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War.
Flashbacks, filmed in washed-out grey, black and white, show the hard times Nureyev grew up under, the grungy train where his mother gave birth, the pedantic martinets of Soviet era ballet schools. And in these scenes, some of them shown out of order, we see the artist emerge from “the system,” fighting it — complaining when none complain, defying where none defy.
As a teen starting his professional training late, he had no time for ordinary teachers. He insists on Pushkin (Fiennes, in a quiet and beautifully economical performance). And he gets him.
We meet Pushkin at his 1961 interrogation by the KGB, which wants to know what he knew and when he knew it.
“This is an attack on the Soviet Union!” they thunder.
“He had an explosion of character…he knows nothing of politics. It is about dance.”
In the fictive present, “Rudi” soaks up everything he can of Paris, taking up with a French dancer (Raphaël Personnaz), seeing the city with a well-connected Chilean woman (Adèle Exarchopoulos), leaning on her one minute, insulting her the next — as is his due.
He bristles at every KGB “minder” restraint on his movements as he waits for the Louvre to open, just so he can gaze up “The Raft of the Medusa,” the famous painting about an early 19th century shipwreck that turned survivors against each other in a dog-eat-dog battle for life.
A metaphor, you think? How Nureyev saw life in the USSR?
Ivenko looks a bit like Nureyev, lacking the beautiful angularity of his sharp features. He’s a fine approximation of “Rudi” in the dance as well, if not quite managing the star’s legendary leaps, the “hang time” that even Michael Jordan would have found hard to match.
“Belaya vorona,” we’re told, is an old Russian expression — “white crow,” as in the perpetual outsider. That was Nureyev, a homosexual in the state where the Socialist Man was no such thing.
We see the trauma of a childhood where his soldier-father finally shows up, years after his birth, and decides to toughen him up by leaving him in the snowy woods.
We only get a scene or two of his sexual tastes, about as many as we get of him being seduced by Pushkin’s savior/micro-managing wife (Chulpan Khamatova).
Ivenko is best in extreme closeups, Rudi waiting for his moment on stage — wholly realizing the stakes, craving the fame that might let him escape the drab, washed-out colors of Russia and his past, confident that such success — maybe even his coming defection (Planned? Or an impulse?) — is inevitable, fated.
“It’s not going to take long…until everyone knows who I am!”
How’re you going to keep’em down on the farms of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics when they’ve seen the lights of Gay Paree?
He stared down The State, which wanted to put him in his place, found his own means of improving his art (a colleague secretly filmed performances so he could see the errors in his line) and learned English (the film is in Russian, French and English, with English subtitles). Who knows? That might come in handy some day.
“The White Crow” has problems with pacing, and Fiennes, three films into his directing career, steps all over his films climax as if he can’t tell that’s what he’s doing.
But he gets good performances out of one and all, stages and shoots the dance sequences well enough and gives a nice grace note to the whole proceedings with his own performance — sentimental, dignified but without the “twinkle” that a lesser actor would have over-reached for.
And he reminds us of the natural, default mode of Czarist turned Soviet turned Putinesque Russia — a boot heel grinding down on freedom, bullying and control at every turn. It’s helpful for movie audiences to remember that, how much courage it took people like Nureyev to find a way out and to take it.
We remember even if the current colluding, cozying up to Russia “leader of the Free World” does not.
Nureyev certainly never forgot.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, and language.
Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Raphaël Personnaz, Calypso Valois
Credits: Directed by Ralph Fiennes, script by David Hare, based on the Julie Kavanagh biography of Rudolph Nuryev. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 2:07