For his third directorial outing, esteemed English actor Ralph Fiennes tackles the story of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and his high-profile defection from the Soviet Union in 1961. In "The White Crow," the spirit of Nureyev seems to strain against the choices of the film, in the same way he strained against the rigid adherence to tradition and governmental restrictions of the Soviet Union. As Nureyev, Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko is like a caged bird, eyes flashing, wings batting. He is an astonishing discovery who carries the unique biopic, a political thriller dressed up as a dance movie.
Fiennes and writer David Hare use three eras from Nureyev's life to explain his defection. His arrival into the world, born on a Trans-Siberian train into a life of poverty in the landlocked city of Ufa, is intercut with his touchdown in 1961 Paris as a dancer with the Kirov Ballet on a publicity tour of Western Europe. The timelines are distinguished visually and fit the norms of the era -- childhood is high-contrast grayscale, while the Parisian section is shot on color Super 16 mm with breezy, handheld new wave touch. A classical style marks his time spent in Leningrad training under the close eye of ballet master Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes), whose wife takes the rebellious Nureyev under her wing, and under her own roof.
Questioned about the defection, Pushkin quietly offers an interrogator a simple, deceptively complex explanation for Nureyev's actions: "an explosion of character." The curious phrase encompasses both Nureyev's outre personality and resistance to rules, as well as his expression of true self. When his French friend Clara (Adele Exarchopoulos) asks him what he wants during the airport standoff with his Soviet handlers and the French police, Nureyev responds simply, "I want to be free." His defection is the purest expression of his own desire, his own character.
The script speaks to his character and circumstance, what ballet offers Nureyev and what it means to him. But the film succeeds when it shows, not tells, in movement and composition. Ivenko has to dance beautifully. But he has to act while dancing as well, embodying Nureyev's grit, determination, flying across the floor, nearly bursting out of his skin with "spirit," as his French friend Pierre says (Raphael Personnaz). A few brilliant shots depict how stifled he feels, especially in the cramped quarters of the Pushkin apartment, submitting to the will of Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova).
Paris means freedom, art and culture for him, and he drinks it in thirstily. He's watched endlessly by a Soviet minder (Aleksey Morozov) who makes ominous threats when he thinks Nureyev has been fraternizing too much with his wealthy Parisian pals, gaining a taste for the good life. But his defection doesn't come from greed, it's from a desperate bid at survival. The "explosion of character" is inevitable. Freedom means his spirit lives.
There is much to laud in this layered and rich portrait, especially Ivenko's performance. But the script, while trying to do so much, lacks in crucial areas. Many of Nureyev's compatriots feel underwritten, including Clara and Xenia, and his roommate Yuri, played by Russian dancer Sergei Polunin. But Ivenko, who bears a strong resemblance to Nureyev, is transfixing, as well as Fiennes and Khamatova. The performances, and the beautifully captured moments of dance, are strong enough to outshine any weak story elements.
'THE WHITE CROW'
Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Adele Exarchopoulos, Chulpan Khamatova.
Directed by Ralph Fiennes.
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, and language.
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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.