White Crow, The: Fiennes Biopic of Brilliant Dance Nureyev

An artist making a biopic about another artist, albeit in another medium?

In The White Crow, Ralph Fiennes, a distinguished actor but only a proficient director, tackles the complex, exhilarating and troubled life of Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian ballet dancer who defected to the West, where he became an international star.

Though the movie leaves much to be desired–the plot is jumbled, the narrative bounces all over the place, The White Crow has one undisputable asset: the lead actor.  In the titular role biopic, Ralph Fiennes hands a hostage to fortune by stressing his subject’s commitment to passion, originality, flair and all the other qualities that movies like to see in artists. He gives viewers an extra reason to ask why those virtues are in short supply in the film itself. In the lead role,

The Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko, who has no screen experience, is well cast, attractive, charismatic in an aptly sullen manner.

My colleague who are better dance judgers than I am, inform me that Ivenko doesn’t quite capture Nureyev’s unique and precise performance style.  But since the viewers likely to see this picture are no experts either, they will be impressed by Ivenko’s strong screen presence and impressive movement..

There’s no special agility, however, in the storytelling, based on playwright David Hare’s script, in which the timeline is jumbled–deliberately so–I assume.

For decades the Cold War was an accepted reality but, what a strange time it was. Ralph Fiennes’s third film as director is set in the middle of this and focuses on the events leading to one of the most high-profile defections from the USSR, that of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. The resulting film is flawed but enjoyable.

Nureyev (Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko) was born on a train in 1938. Writer David Hare opens with this before jumping to 1961 when the Kirov Ballet have just arrived in Paris with a full complement of KGB officers shadowing their every move. Nureyev proves one of the most rule and curfew resistant members of the troupe and on his outings he strikes up an important friendship with Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos). The film suggests Nureyev’s desire to shine is not compatible with the team spirit demanded by communism and this leads to a showdown.

The story jumps a lot from episodes of his childhood to his training under Alexander Pushkin (played Fiennes) and his wife (Chulpan Khamatova) to post defection and then to Paris.

Though some jumps are indicated by color changes they are messy. They also dilute the sense of building towards a moment.

Clara Saint is written as a plot device rather than a fully realized character person so she is very flat.

However it is a great story about a young ambitious artists and an era–the Cold War.

Fiennes’ third feature as director enters on a rebellious artist grappling with his sexuality during turbulent political times rife with tensions between the US and Russia. 

World premiering at the 2018 Toronto Film Fest, The White Crow will be released by the estimable Sony Classics April 26 (It had already opened in the U.K. to mixed reviews).

The tale is actually set nearly 60 years ago and depicts the true tale of late ballet sensation Rudolf Nureyev, who died of AIDS in Paris

Known for performances that were sensual, Nureyev inflamed Cold War tensions when he became one of the first artists to defect from the Soviet Union in 1961.

Once in the United States, the ballet and contemporary dancer and choreographer became a household name, partnering with Margot Fonteyn in acclaimed productions of “Giselle” and “Swan Lake.”

He was versatile in other medium, appearing on “The Muppet Show” and playing another dance named Rudolph (name is differently spelled) Valentino in an ill-fated biopic about the silent screen star.