The White Crow
Russia is in the news almost daily, but one compelling story from the nation — back when it was still part of the Soviet Union — has faded in the collective memory. The defection of Soviet ballet star Rudolf Nureyev at the peak of his visibility at age 23 was the first major artistic escape of the Cold War, and it was huge news in 1961. The White Crow vividly brings Nureyev back to centerstage, recounting both his life and art up until that point and his intensely dramatic departure from Soviet control.
Nureyev died in 1993, so it’s not surprising that Millennials and younger folks don’t even recognize his name, but he was a pre-Beatles superstar, so beloved by the Soviets that they wanted to show him off to the West as part of a tour by the Mariinsky Ballet to Paris and London. The dancer’s misbehavior and mixed feelings in Paris on that tour are the core of this film’s screenplay, written by acclaimed playwright David Hare (The Reader, The Hours), based on Julie Kavanagh’s 2008 biography.
Actor Ralph Fiennes is the director and plays dance master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin, who discovered and nurtured Nureyev. Helming his third feature, Fiennes displays an admirable aptitude for matching his visual style to the events he’s depicting, whether Nureyev’s unusual birth on a trans-Siberian train, the snippets of dancing (by ballet star and impressive first-time actor Oleg Ivenko, in the title role), scenes in the nightclubs and gay bars of Paris or the compelling, extended final sequence. (The changing aspect ratio is a gimmick that’s less distracting than it sounds and less effective than the director likely hopes.)
The movie does a good job of recreating the tensions and insecurities of the Cold War, seen from the Soviet side, and of depicting Nureyev’s devil-may-care attitude toward the people and pressures in his life. The largely unknown supporting cast is an asset, not just because they’re talented but because their lack of familiarity adds to the film’s period credibility. Particularly good is the one maybe-known actor, Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), as Clare Saint, the French woman credited with convincing Nureyev to defect.
Nureyev remained a major celebrity in the West until age and AIDS forced him to slow and stop dancing, and he was never known as a kind or happy man. Hare and Fiennes handle his possibly abrasive personality without judgment. The downside to that is that the distance required to keep a balanced view of Nureyev also dampens the film’s emotional impact. Nureyev makes for a fascinating central figure, but he’s not a charmer. Of course, that’s part of the point: His story is important in part because his motives remain somewhat opaque.
Grade: B-plus. Playing at the Fine Arts Theatre. Join Asheville Movie Guys for a hosted screening of the film at 7:20 p.m. June 3.
(Photos: Sony Pictures Classics)