In Paris in 1961, while on tour with the Kirov Ballet, Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West. It was a signal moment in the Cold War, but The White Crow, Ralph Fiennes’s third film as director (his previous was 2013’s The Invisible Woman), isn’t concerned with the aftermath: this is all about what led to it.
Except it’s not terribly enlightening in that regard. The tense defection sequence — set at Paris’s Le Bourget airport and replete with the gripping jockeying of KGB agents and French police. That all worthy of a spy thriller — is when the film finally springs to passionate life. But that doesn’t come until the last few minutes of this elegant but mostly dull endeavor… Which is no spoiler if you’re not aware of what young Nureyev was about to do. Because the film opens with his ballet teacher, Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes, in a small role), attempting to grapple. That with the news of his student’s unexpect act of defiance. “He had an explosion of character,” Pushkin guesses.
As The White Crow’s title suggests, its perspective derives from the Russian folk metaphor of “the white crow,”. Which describes an unusual person, an outsider. The film is clear-eyed about immigration because it focuses on a privilege artist’s selfishness. The part of his humanity that is inseparable from his ambition and probably inherent to his talent.
It’d be nice if the film bothered with even any minor firecrackers of character till that moment.
David Hare’s (Denial, The Reader) anemic script — based on the biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, by Julie Kavanagh — is structure as a series of flashbacks within flashbacks depicting Nureyev’s impoverish. But loving childhood and his teen years as a dance student in Leningrad.
But the bulk of the film has Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) wandering prettily around Paris, eating at cafés, befriending the locals — primarily socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos: Blue Is the Warmest Color). And generally being a generic, tedious, arrogant jerk the likes of which we’re use to seeing male artists depict as, with approval. If you don’t know much about Nureyev going into this movie, you won’t know much coming out, either.
The key issue here, though, given what The White Crow is attempting: It’s never clear why his KGB handlers are so worry about Nureyev. Sure, he doesn’t like following rules and strains at the short leash the touring dancers are kept on. But he hardly appears to be any sort of threat to the Soviet Union. He’s not agitating politically or even hinting that he might embarrass his homeland.
The KGB’s decision to send him back to Moscow instead of on to London with the rest of the Kirov comes out of nowhere. Even with the earlier warning he’d gotten about his behavior. That as does Nureyev’s immediate decision to defect. If you didn’t already know this was coming, it would feel like narrative whiplash, so much context for it is missing. This is a film so subtle it’s downright diffuse.
What’s also missing here? Ballet.
There’s barely any dancing here, which is… bizarre, given the film’s insistence on how that’s all Nureyev is interest in, never mind his reputation as one of the greatest dancers ever. “If I had dance, you would remember,” he tells an audience member in Paris after a performance in which he does not appear. Sorta sums up The White Crow, too.
The White Crow — a Russian expression for Nureyev’s uniqueness — opens shortly after Nureyev’s notorious defection to the West in Paris in 1961. Alexander Pushkin, his devoted ballet master (Fiennes, purling out credible Russian in a sad, subdued tone) is grilled by a Soviet official about why the dancer jumped ship.
Nureyev cares nothing about politics, Pushkin says, it was about dance. And indeed, Crow is mainly, thrillingly, about dance, a multi-faceted portrait of an artist. Whose bravura style and alluring, feminized masculinity changed the role of male dancers in ballet. (The creative process seems to be in vogue among filmmakers. The art house hit Never Look Away similarly explores the artistic journey of the painter Gerhard Richter. Who was also caught in the gears of history.)
The White Crow also benefits from a very talented international cast led by dancer Oleg Ivenko. Who manages to create a lasting impression as Nureyev by making him alternatively fascinating and annoying.
Fiennes brings a good contrast to Nureyev’s volcanic temperament in the role of Pushkin, his teacher, played throughout the film. It is worthwhile to note, in Russian with an impeccable accent. The cast is completed by a talented group of international cast including German actor Louis Hofmann (Land of Mine). Ukrainian/Russian actors Chulpan Khamatova (Good Bye Lenin!) and Sergei Polunin (Murder on the Orient Express). And French actors Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Colour). Raphaël Personnaz (The Princess of Montpensier) and Olivier Rabourdin (Of Gods and Men), the latters perfect as usual.
The White Crow is beautifully shot. There is an epic quality to Mike Eley’s cinematography, the lavish dance sequences and attention to period detail. Giving a stunning debut performance, Ivenko is mesmerising as Nureyev, conveying his star quality, charm, irascibility and flamboyance in equal measure.
The supporting cast is also spot on. The actor playing young Nureyev bears more than a passing resemblance to Ivenko. And the actresses portraying his mother and sisters could be part of the same family. Fiennes’ cameo turn, delivered in fluent Russian, proves as elegant as his direction.
Finally, The White Crow benefits from a spot on reconstitution. That doesn’t seem to have relied on CGIs but rather on clever camera angles. Which is greatly enhanced by a restrained but evocative cinematography. Fiennes and his cinematographer Mike Eley (My Cousin Rachel). The latter despite or thanks to his previous experience in documentaries and TV, manage to make very good use of locations. That to create a succession of beautiful scenes whether it is in black and white Ukraine, empty St Petersburg or glamourous Paris. Fiennes’ intimate direction adds an additional layer to the reconstitution. Which turns out to be of an implacable efficiency during the third act.
Rating: R (for some sexuality, graphic nudity, and language)
Directed By: Ralph Fiennes
Stars: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Louis Hofmann
Written By: David Hare
In Theaters: Apr 26, 2019 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Jul 30, 2019
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR THE WHITE CROW
The film gives the impression that much of Fiennes’ attention went into working with Ivenko on shaping the details of this portrait — and it is psychologically convincing, whether or not it has much to do with the real man.
Fiennes’ drab biopic of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev drains the color from his life, and comes across as cold as a Soviet winter.
Ultimately, “The White Crow” seems tailored to appeal to moviegoers who are already fans of Nureyev’s idiosyncratic dancing and want to know more about how it got that way.
The film may go to lengths to tell us that Nureyev was sensational to watch, but we don’t experience much of this power or magnetism as viewers.