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.