Alibi V.28 No.20 • May 16-22, 2019 

Film Review

The White Crow

Choppy ballet biopic moves through time with wild abandon

The White Crow

Directed by Ralph Fiennes

Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Louis Hofman

The White Crow
“But I am dancing … with my eyes.”

Longtime British actor Ralph Fiennes returns to his occasional hobby of directing (the 2011 Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus, the 2013 Charles Dickens biopic The Invisible Woman) with The White Crow. This evocative biopic relates the true story of Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the West. Inspired by Julie Cavanagh’s book Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, the film is a dutiful if long-winded attempt to sum up the star’s time on Earth and his dramatic decision to abandon his homeland at the height of the Cold War.

Both the film’s director and its screenwriter (David Hare, who penned The Hours and The Reader) seem drawn to the passionate artistic world that surrounded the iconic Mr. Nureyev. Their film dwells as much on his onstage art as the circumstances of his life. Things begin, chronologically enough, as the future star is born on a train bound for Siberia in 1938. Sadly, the preternaturally talented Mr. Nureyev is born into a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that is largely shut off from the rest of the world. Any work he does in the world of ballet will be done for the glory of the USSR and not for international fame. That’s a situation that can’t sit well with an artist of Nureyev’s temperament.

At a skosh over two hours, The White Crow leaps around a great deal in time and place and tone. Nureyev has barely been born and we’re already spinning off to 1961 Paris. There, a young Rudi (skilled Ukranian dancer/first-time actor Oleg Ivenko) ignores his government handlers in order to sneak out and experience the City of Lights firsthand. As punishment for his night of freedom, he’s not allowed to dance with the Kirov Ballet on opening night.

Roll back the clock six years for the next sequence and we learn a bit about a Nureyev’s growing skill and blossoming ego. The teenage dancer, joining the ballet world late, is taken under the wing of legendary teacher Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes, stepping in front of the camera as well). Almost instantly, Pushkin moves Nureyev into his cramped Soviet apartment. There, the young dancer crosses paths with Pushkin’s wife (Chulpan Khamatova), who takes a rather personal interest in the dark-eyed lad. (She won’t be the last, either.)

The film shoots each of its three major timelines in a different visual style. (Colors get brighter the closer we are to the “current” 1961 segments.) It’s a quick cue to audiences on where we are in the story, making it easy enough to separate the timelines. But the constant jumping through decades doesn’t add much drama or context to the story. It’s like reading a biography that someone dropped on the ground, forcing them to reassemble the chapters in random order.

The White Crow doesn’t go to any great lengths to make us sympathetic to its subject. That’s fine. Plenty of historical figures were, in fact, jerks. Here, Nureyev is painted—quite accurately, one assumes—as a haughty, self-centered virtuoso who thinks himself above mere talentless mortals. Frequent cutaways to his impoverished childhood prove he came from humble circumstances, but don’t improve our sympathies any. The choppiness of the narrative also takes some of the wind out of the film’s time-tangled narrative sails.

The climax of Nureyev’s story is, of course, his dramatic defection to the West. But there’s little sense of momentum leading up to it, thanks to the jumpy timeline. The climactic defection/asylum sequence, set at Paris’ Le Bourget airport, is lensed like a ’70s political thriller and shows off Fiennes’ cinematic skills to gripping effect. But the whys and wherefores behind the defection feel slippery and under-elucidated. And our general lack of sympathy for the main character tends to undercut our stake in the outcome.

The film’s many, all-too-brief ballet sequences are impressive. Ivenko, a noted soloist himself, clearly has the skill to embody Nureyev’s physicality and stage presence. His background in ballet allows Fiennes to present the film’s dance sequences uncut and without doubles. It’s a bit like watching a martial arts movie with Jackie Chan. The “stunt work,” so to speak, is real. And it helps give the film a verisimilitude it wouldn’t have with a non-dancing actor in the lead role.

The White Crow is an elegant and energetic portrait of an artist, well staged and shot in brief snippets. But there are just so many snippets to absorb here. The jarringly fractured storytelling, the aggressively choppy editing and the generally unlikable subject keep the film from adding up to much more than the sum of its parts.