The White Crow: Director Ralph Fiennes' Nureyev bio-pic puts a rare bird in a cage

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B-minus

The title of the new filmed biography of Russian dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, is The White Crow, a Russian expression meaning meaning “a rare bird,” or to steal the title of another comparatively recent ballet movie, a Black Swan

The trouble with the film, which is directed by actor Ralph Fiennes, is that it puts its rare bird in a conventional cage. What explained his “explosion of character” as one teacher puts it in the film? His miserable childhood poverty? His rebelliousness against his military father? 

Ukrainian ballet star Oleg Ivenko portrays the young Rudolf Nureyev in The White Crow

Ukrainian ballet star Oleg Ivenko portrays the young Rudolf Nureyev in The White Crow

Nureyev’s celebrity came from his high-profile defection to the West, at the age of 23. The moment, dubbed by the press as the “great leap to freedom,” at Paris’s Le Bourget airport in 1961, was a mortal blow to the Soviet Union’s campaign to demonstrate its cultural superiority.  

But The White Crow is really “Nureyev before Nureyev,” and it’s a struggle to sort out its purpose.  Audiences are required to watch the film with an understanding that this somewhat Nureyev-looking actor (Ukrainian ballet star and novice actor Oleg Ivenko) with his stilted English delivery, and choreographed temper tantrums, somehow became the violently beautiful dancer and pop icon, the charismatic faun who joined the sixties’ pantheon of Jackie O,  The Beatles, Warhol, Jagger and Ali.

If you haven’t seen film of the actual Nureyev dancing, The White Crow is largely unobliging. It’s not until the closing credits, when we see a brief spine-shivering clip of the actual Nureyev in motion, that we get the point. (“Oh, that’s what this was about!”). It’s the same flaw as Michael Mann’s Ali; Will Smith is appealing and game. But Ali, as an electric young athlete, was a different order of human being.

The other problem here is playwright David Hare’s script, which, in a sense, never finds its footing in trying to link Nureyev’s biographical data to his personality. Hare has adapted part of Julie Kavanagh’s 2007 biography about the dancer in competing time frames: The present takes place in the month, between May and June 1961, when Nureyev performed with the Kirov Ballet at the Paris Opera House

Dancing by night, and hitting the light-drenched galleries, nightspots and cafés of Paris the rest of the time, we see young Rudi shrugging off his nervous KGB handlers and growing increasingly cocky. His companion, and occasional emotional punching bag, is the well-connected Chilean heiress, Clara Saint (Blue is the Warmest Colour star, Adèle Exarchopoulos, upper-class and dull here), grieving the death of her fiancé, who was the son of French culture minister, Andre Malraux

The decisions around film’s language scheme certainly don’t help. Russian scenes are spoken in Russian, with subtitles, but scenes in France take place in stilted English, making the French characters sound like awkward foreigners in their own country. 

There are promising moments here. You get some sense of the ecstasy of the young Nureyev’s artistic discovery: Nureyev incorporates into his dance a writhing arm gesture from a painting at the Louvre, or some feminine flamboyance after catching a Folies-Bergères style erotic revue. Perhaps if the film had simply been about Nureyev’s life-changing month in Paris, while trailed by his doleful KGB handlers  (a kind of update on Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka), it could have been a fine piece of entertainment in itself.

The real bars on the cage here, though, are the use of flashbacks – a series of jetés through time back into young Rudi’s life that feel fussy, repetitive and reductive. From the young dancer’s birth – on the Trans-Siberian Express train in 1938 - his childhood years are marked by desaturated colours. A pointless change into wide-screen format shows lots of dun-brown clothes, stern faces and snow, images that are repeated too often (with the exception of the solemn, wide-cheeked face of child actor, Maksimilian Grigoriyev, who plays Nureyev at age eight).

The film’s palette brightens a little by 1955, when Rudi is a petulant handsome teen-ager, trying out for the ballet academy.  A small crack of illumination in the pervasive Soviet greyness is opened by Nureyev’s teacher, Alexander Pushkin (played by director Fiennes, stocky and long-suffering, with a sharply receding hairline). His grudging encouragement sees the young dancer sharing the teacher’s cramped apartment, and also sharing his wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), a middle-aged woman in an odd Joan of Arc hair-cut, who, we assume, routinely enjoys the pick of her husband’s crop of students.

All this feels like a chronology of random details rather than the formation of a meaningful storyline. The action does improve markedly in the last 20 minutes, when the film, briefly turns into an escape thriller. 

Nureyev’s panicked KGB handlers, led by Strizhevksy (a plausible, mock sympathetic Aleksey Morozov), decide to put an end to Nureyev’s excellent Parisian adventure. Rather than have their prize dancer and run-amok-ego, continue on to London and find new ways to get into trouble, the Soviet bosses begin inventing reasons why he must fly back to Moscow (where, possibly, prison awaits). Premier Nikita Khrushchev suddenly requires a command performance, Nureyev’s mother is sick, etc.

Here, the editing is quicker and compelling, with the suspense balanced by a clumsy comedy between the officious French police and the outmatched KGB agents. There’s the material of a lovely more precise film here, not a fragmentary and unconvincing biography, but perhaps a sharp comedy, or even more daringly, a dance.   

The White Crow. Directed by Ralph Fiennes. Written by David Hare. Starring Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Ralph Fiennes.The White Crowcan be seen at the Cineplex Varsity/VIP theatre.