Aside from being a celebrated actor, the dark lord of the wizarding world, and one of those people of whom you always wonder why they don’t have an Oscar yet, Ralph Fiennes is also a director. He made his debut with 2011’s criminally underrated Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus, then received strong reviews, if a muted public response, for the Charles Dickens biopic The Invisible Woman. While he gave himself the plummy leading roles in both those movies, this time around, he’s taken a backseat in favour of telling a much more dramatic tale. The White Crow follows the famed Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as he goes to Paris for his first dance tour outside of the USSR and defects to the West.
Easily Fiennes’s most ambitious film as a director, this torrid period in Nureyev’s life is framed around his time in France, with flashbacks to his poverty stricken youth and his early days training at the famous Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in Leningrad. Nureyev, a notably tempestuous figure who was keenly aware of his talent, he catches the eye of both his tutor, Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes) and his wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova). What Rudolf lacks in terms of training, he makes up for with laser-like focus, immense dedication to his craft, and sheer unmitigated ego.
Fiennes has not made this narrative easy for himself. Working from a script from the celebrated playwright David Hare (who also wrote the screenplays for The Hours and The Reader), the story jumps from Nureyev’s time in Paris to his youth to his dance training and the many celebrated performances he gave. Smartly, Fiennes doesn’t try to tackle the dancer’s entire life, but 23 years scattered across a non-linear timeline still proves occasionally too jumbled to make sense of. One minute, we see Rudolf dealing with the strain of endless hours of practice, then it cuts to his childhood (shot in gorgeous looking, if thematically unsubtle, de-saturated colour), then back to Paris where he is avoiding the scrutiny of his minders to check out the city’s sights. Fiennes is going less for detailed psychological insight and more for a refined portrait of an enigmatic figure, but this technique leads him to repeat himself too much with these flashbacks. We gain little from his early life beyond his curious birth (he was born on a train) and his family’s abject poverty, so the more the story cuts back to the time, the less we gain from it. The purpose of this flourish makes more sense when we see Rudolf’s training contrasted with the end results.
In a savvy but immensely risky move, Fiennes has cast an actual Russian ballet dancer to play Nureyev. Oleg Ivenko, a solost of the M. Jalil Tatar State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, has been given the unenviable task of playing one of ballet’s true icons, and doing so as a non-professional actor who didn’t speak English when he auditioned for the part. Ivenko, who bears a strong resemblance to Matthew Goode, equips himself strongly for the immense task, nailing the poise and petulance that made Nureyev simultaneously so appealing and aggravating. It’s a shame the film is so restrained and doesn’t dig into Nureyev’s infamous diva moments, because Ivenko certainly has the good to pull off those legendary tantrums. He’s a tamer Rudolf, one who has not yet been treated to an endless solo spotlight, but Fiennes still gives Ivenko plenty of opportunities to show off his skills.
Of course, you don’t hire real ballet dancers for a film about ballet without filling the screen with sumptuous dance scenes. Fiennes focuses heavily on the elegance and technique of the medium, but he is less concerned with giving audiences a full night at the theatre. His camera lingers more on the work of ballet, from the repetitive class exercises to the creak of the floorboards as dancers gracefully thump the ground. Nureyev may have been a showman of the highest order but for Fiennes the true appeal lies in the committed and practiced labour of the artform.
Mercifully, the film does not straight-wash Nureyev, who had relationships with both men or women. In keeping with the overall restraint of the film, Rudolf’s affairs are tastefully presented and mostly PG, even with the occasional flashes of nipples and penis. Faring less well is the subplot between Rudolf and his new friend in France, socialite Clara Saint (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos from Blue is the Warmest Colour). A friend-slash-connection for Rudolf, Clara is grieving the loss of her fiancé while showing her new pal the sights of Paris. While she serves a crucial part of the story, Exarchopolous isn’t given much to work with and the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with her until that finale. She gets to be beautiful and sullen and very French, all of which she excels at, but her encounters with Rudolf can’t help but feel like the script’s attempts to add more English dialogue to the film (for the most part, the story is in Russian).
The White Crow, for all its noble intentions, could have used a bit more passion. Its rigorously applied restraints to the story often feel at odds with the more frenetic moments of editing and don’t give much room for Nureyev to be as bombastic as he famously was. An introspective approach to such a story is noble and it has moments of immense appeal, but this was also a figure and period of history that would have benefited from a somewhat looser method. For someone whose life was defined by a refusal to adhere to the rules, it feels like a missed opportunity for a Rudolf Nureyev film to stick to them so faithfully.
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