THE WHITE CROW

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Stars: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Adele Exarchopoulos, Louis Hoffman, Raphael Peronnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin, Calypso Valois, Aleksey Morozov, Olivier Rabourdin.

Ralph Fiennes and Oleg Ivenko in The White Crow (2018)

White crow is a term used by the Russians to describe something, unique, unusual or even an outlier. That term perfectly fits Rudolf Nureyev, one of the most famous Russian ballet dancers who defected to the west in 1961.

During a cultural visit to Paris in 1961 by the Kirov Ballet Company Nureyev came to experience the beauty of art, museums, and literature, fine dining and a sense of freedom that he couldn’t find in communist Russia. Anxious to make his name on the world stage, Nureyev felt intellectually and creatively stifled by the repressive communist regime. While enjoying Paris’ vibrant nightclub scene he constantly missed his evening curfews, and his behaviour displeased his official Russian KGB minders. On the eve of the troupe flying off to London for the next leg of their tour, Nureyev was suddenly ordered home to Moscow. Fearing the consequences, he decided to defect and seek asylum while still in Paris’ Le Bourget airport.

The White Crow is based on the book Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, written by Julie Kavanagh, and has been adapted to the screen by playwright David Hare (The Hours, The Reader, etc). Rather than a biopic of Nureyev this film draws only on the first five chapters of the book and concentrates mainly on the lead up to his defection, which made headlines around the world.

The White Crow is a passion project for Ralph Fiennes, who directs the film. This is the third film to be directed by Fiennes; it follows Coriolanus, his violent and contemporary take on one of Shakespeare’s lesser known dramas, and The Invisible Woman, which depicted an illicit love affair involving Victorian author Charles Dickens. His handling of the material here show that he has matured stylistically as a filmmaker. His direction is a little uneven in the early parts of the film, but Fiennes brings plenty of tension to the climactic sequence set in the airport as Nureyev announces his intention to defect. These scenes play out like a thriller.

Making his film debut as Nureyev is Ukranian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko, who has the right physicality to effectively play the flamboyant character, and he does bear a strong resemblance. But he also manages to capture his complex personality – his haughty arrogance, charm, his obsession with achieving perfection – as well as his energy and sense of isolation and paranoia.

Fiennes himself delivers an understated and more reserved performance as Nureyev’s ballet teacher and mentor, Alexander Pushkin, the top ballet instructor at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St Petersburg, and he brings a weary quality to the role. Adele Exarchopoulos (from Blue Is The Warmest Colour, etc) plays Clara Saint, a French socialite who helps Nureyev to defect, but there is little chemistry between her and Ivenko. Aleksey Morozov is also very good as Nureyev’s KGB minder Srizhevsky.

To add to the authenticity, Fiennes has his characters speak in a mix of Russian and French dialogue, with English subtitles. The film also unfolds in a non-linear fashion, with the drama interspersed with lots of flashbacks to Nureyev’s impoverished childhood in WWII-era Russia. These flashbacks are filmed in dreary monochrome, and they slowly leach into muted colours, which adds to the rather grim tone. The film has been beautifully shot on locations in Russia, Serbia and Paris by cinematographer Mike Eley (My Cousin Rachel, etc), which further lends authenticity to the period detail. There are some quite superb ballet sequences that recreate some of Nureyev’s brilliance, all shot without digital tricks or cutaway editing thanks to the astute casting of Ivenko who lends verisimilitude.

Ultimately though, The White Crow is a fairly unsympathetic portrait, but it doesn’t really give us much insight into the man, and Nureyev remains something of an elusive and enigmatic character. Given his story and incredible journey there is still a decent biopic to be made about his life. There is also apparently a well-researched and more comprehensive documentary about Nureyev soon to be released.

★★☆

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