Tag Archives: B

THE WHITE CROW

Producer: Gabrielle Tana, Ralph Fiennes, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Andrew Levitas and Francois Ivernel
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Writer: David Hare
Stars: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphaël Peronnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Aleksey Morozov, Sergei Polunin, Anna Urban, Louis Hoffman, Olivier Rabourdin and Maksimilian Grigoriyev
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B

We’re informed at the start of Ralph Fiennes’s “The White Crow” that the title refers to a Russian phrase identifying an extraordinary person, the equivalent of a rara avis. That certainly applies to famed Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, whose early life—up to his defection to the West in 1961—is the subject of this elegant, cultivated film.

The screenplay, by playwright-filmmaker David Hare, who mined Julie Kavanagh’s biography for details, begins and ends fairly conventionally: it starts with Nureyev’s birth on a train in Siberia in 1938, and closes, except for a postscript, with a dramatic account of his defection at a Paris airport at the close of the first stage of his troupe’s Western tour when he was a rising star at twenty-three. But the story bookended by these segments jumps back and forward in time, creating a shifting narrative mosaic.

In some respects that’s frustrating for a viewer, who has to accommodate himself to the changing chronology. But it also has a positive aspect in that it brings tension to the Fiennes’s telling of the tale, even as he lays out the scenes in a largely deliberate, subdued manner. The result from the perspective of narrative momentum is a mixed bag, with the pluses marginally outweighing the minuses.

Energy, meanwhile, is added to the mix by Oleg Ivenko, the young Ukrainian dancer chosen to play Nureyev as a young man. Ivenko might not exude the degree of personal charisma the real Nureyev did, but despite a lack of acting experience, he boasts a compelling screen presence, and pulls off his big dramatic moments reasonably well. He also has the great virtue of being a thoroughly capable dancer, so that cinematographer Mike Eley and editor Barney Pilling can present the rehearsal and performance sequences showing him in full figure, without the need to use cutaway shots, body doubles, or sudden shifts from torso to moving feet. We’re allowed to watch him without obtrusive—and inevitably unsuccessful—camera tricks, and appreciate the grace, fluidity and excitement of his movements.

As Hare and Fiennes build up the mosaic, they offer glimpses of Nureyev’s childhood as a solitary youth not interested in horseplay with the other village children (Maksimilian Grigoriyev plays him at eight) but fascinated by ballet, and then go on to other biographical episodes: his acceptance at the ballet school of Leningrad’s Mariinsky Ballet, where, dissatisfied with his first teacher, he was accepted into the class of Alexander Puskin (Fiennes, speaking Russian with quiet authority); his move into Pushkin’s home, where the teacher’s wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) romanced him under her husband’s eyes (Pushkin stoically accepting what was happening); his resistance to being sent from Leningrad to Ufa, and his rescue by ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya (Anna Urban), who chose him as her partner at the Kirov; and the company’s trip to Paris, where they were under the close watch of their minder Strizhevsky (Aleksey Morozov), who took notice from the start of Nureyev’s tendency to wander off by himself to visit museums and fraternize freely with westerners.

Chief among those are French dancer Pierre Lacotte (Raphaël Personnaz) and his friend Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchpoulos), the fiancée of Vincent Malraux (son of the French Minister of Culture) whom Nureyev befriended after Vincent’s sudden death in a car accident. But though it doesn’t overemphasize it, the film also notes Nureyev’s expansive notions about sexuality, portraying his intimate friendship back home with German dancer Teja Kremke (Louis Hofmann) and his closeness on tour with his roommate Yuri Soloviev (Sergei Polunin).

In Fiennes’s recreation of Nureyev’s defection, Lacotte and Saint play important roles. Nureyev is preparing to depart for London with the troupe when Strizhevsky abruptly informs him that he is being returned to Moscow to appear in a special gala for Premier Khrushchev. Realizing what’s happening, Nureyev objects and asks Lacotte for help; he is, in turn, instrumental in enlisting Saint, who contacts the airport police, headed by Gregory Alexinsky (Olivier Rabourdin), for assistance, which proves decisive when Strizhevsky tries to intervene physically and then issues not-so-veiled threats as Nureyev ponders his ultimate decision.

One intriguing historical point not alluded to in the film, found in Diane Solway’s 1998 biography of Nureyev, is that Alexinsky, a Russian émigré whose family had suffered in the Soviet Union, facilitated the dancer’s defection even more than as depicted by Fiennes. But the staging of the confrontation is certainly in line with today’s general agreement that the defection was not a pre-planned act on Nureyev’s part, but a sudden decision prompted not so much by political considerations and a generalized love of freedom as by his determination to seek an international career without interference.

Whatever misgivings one might harbor about the structural choices Hare and Fiennes made with “The White Crow,” the end result is a film that is mostly successful in conveying the challenges of Nureyev’s early life, his unfettered determination to excel, and his uniqueness as a person and a dancer. The highest compliment one can pay to it is that it leaves one wanting to check out the films of his actual on-stage performances, which remain astonishing records of his consummate artistry.

HESBURGH

Producer: Jerry Barca and Christine O'Malley
Director: Patrick Creadon
Writer: Nick Andert, Jerry Barca and William Neal
Stars: Fr. Theodore Hesburgh
Studio: OCP Productions

B

After watching Patrick Creadon’s documentary about Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., President of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, you might wonder whether the film is intended as part of the cause for his canonization. It contains few criticisms of him, apart from occasional nasty remarks from the likes of Richard Nixon, George Wallace and Vatican bureaucrats, but given the sources those are rather easy to dismiss.

Much of the film is narrated in Hesburgh’s own words—it’s sort of an oral autobiography, with his memoirs read by Maurice LaMarche (though Hesburgh speaks for himself in archival footage). It covers Hesburgh’s life from childhood (he says he decided he wanted to be a priest when he was six) through his retirement, augmenting his own reminiscences with plenty of archival footage, stills, and observations from admirers, colleagues, friends and relatives as well as connecting narration.

One element of the result is what might be termed ecclesiastical and academic. It includes the decision of his superiors at the Congregation of Holy Cross to appoint him at a young age—only in his mid-thirties—to such an important post (which he would hold for thirty-five years). But what remains impressive are his myriad accomplishments in that role—vastly improving the academic side of the school (using his formidable fund-raising prowess), transferring governance powers to a board that included laymen, and transforming Notre Dame into a coed institution.

Hesburgh also defended the principle of academic freedom at American Catholic universities, resisting efforts from the papal curia to impose its will on functions at Notre Dame and leading the presidents of a consortium of his fellow colleges to issue the so-called Land O’Lakes Statement reaffirming the principle in 1967. His friendship with students throughout his tenure is also emphasized, though it is noted that the relationship was sorely tested by campus unrest against the Vietnam War in the 1960s (when his employment of strict discipline against protestors caused some to question his own position on the matter). On the other hand, the film devotes considerable space to the case of Robert Anson, a former student who was taken prisoner while serving as a correspondent for Time Magazine in 1970 and was freed after Hesburgh had asked his friend Pope Paul VI to intervene on his behalf; Anson tears up recollecting Hesburgh’s intervention.

The other portion of the documentary records Hesburgh’s wider service to the nation, especially as a member of the Civil Rights Commission, to which he was appointed by President Eisenhower and on which he remained during turbulent times. The success of the group in reaching unanimity in its initial recommendations, despite their diverse viewpoints, is attributed to his ability to bring people together, in the first instance by inviting them all to enjoy a fishing outing, once again, at Notre Dame’s property at Land O’Lakes in Wisconsin. And he became a forceful advocate for racial equality, famously appearing with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1964 and later earning the hostility of President Nixon for his refusal to tone down criticism of his administration’s enforcement policies.

The film follows Hesburgh into retirement from the presidency in 1987 through his death in 2015, including his standing by the decision of his successor John Jenkins to invite President Obama to campus in 2009 despite vociferous opposition from pro-life protestors. It leaves it to the viewer to couple that with Hesburgh’s own decision to permit George Wallace to speak on campus in 1964, despite their fundamentally different views.

“Hesburgh” undoubtedly verges on hagiography, but it presents a persuasive portrait of a man who served both his university and his country with vigor and unquestionable administrative skill. Notre Dame graduates will especially appreciate it, and beyond them American Catholics generally; but anyone who admires people of vision and personal commitment can benefit from it.

One should add that Creadon’s direction is capable, the script by Nick Andert, Jerry Barca and William Neal straightforward, the camerawork by Turner Jumonville fine, the score by Alex Mansour unobtrusive, and—most important in such a film—the editing by Nick Andert and William Neal smooth and efficient.

At one point when Hesburgh had become especially peripatetic because of his work in government service, fundraising, and ecclesiastical politics, a wag at the university came up with a wry observation, related in the film: “What’s the difference between God and Father Hesburgh? God is everywhere—and Hesburgh is everywhere except Notre Dame.” He might not be quite so omnipresent now, but he has found a well-deserved place on the big screen, in a form that is likely to serve nicely on smaller ones for years to come.