The White Crow Review
As all forms of art, ballet transcends cultural boundaries to create a universal language, most specifically, by relying on music and dance, instead of words, to tell a story. The story of famous Russian ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, an artist who couldn’t express himself within the confinement of a country or a political ideology, and as a result literally transcended the frontiers of USSR by defecting to the West in 1961, perfectly illustrates this universality.
The White Crow tells the story of Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko, in his debut role) who, with his magnetic presence, emerged as ballet’s most famous star, a wild and beautiful dancer limited by the world of 1950s Leningrad. His flirtation with Western artists and ideas led him into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse with the KGB.
After adapting William Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus, for his directorial debut in 2011, Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) pursues his directorial career in the vein of biographic cinema, after The Invisible Woman in 2013, with a third directorial effort bringing back to life one of the most famous ballet dancers of all time. To do so, Fiennes partnered with screenwriter David Hare (The Hours) who wrote a script inspired by Julie Kavanagh’s book, Rudolf Nureyev: The Life. Inspired is a key word here as, contrary to the book’s title, The White Crow is not a biopic per se, a genre which has been popularised in recent years by various films like Ray, Walk the Line or The Theory of Everything, but rather an interesting patchwork of moments which led the famous artist becoming one of the first significant defectors of the Cold War.
Fiennes and Hare have achieved this by convoking three key periods of Nureyev’s life via an expertly constructed structure which never loses its audience (providing they show a minimum of attention) and by adopting a contrasting style of direction. Thus, from Nureyev’s childhood in Ufa, thankfully not burden by unnecessary emphasis on its scarcity and rigidity, to his acceptance into the Vaganova Academy of St Petersburg under the direction of Alexander Pushkin, the film doesn’t dwell on the superfluous and instead tries to offer a more challenging insight into the artist’s psyche, even if this means voluntarily downplaying some well-known aspects of his life such as his homosexuality. This embracement of art coupled with Nureyev’s phenomenal level of dedication and evident disdain for rules, finish to paint the portrait of an artist who cannot artistically express himself within the boundaries (both physical and ideological) of a country making his ultimate, life altering, decision all the more obvious.
The White Crow also benefits from a very talented international cast led by dancer Oleg Ivenko who manages to create a lasting impression as Nureyev by making him alternatively fascinating and annoying. Fiennes brings a good contrast to Nureyev’s volcanic temperament in the role of Pushkin, his teacher, played throughout the film, it is worthwhile to note, in Russian with an impeccable accent. The cast is completed by a talented group of international cast including German actor Louis Hofmann (Land of Mine), Ukrainian/Russian actors Chulpan Khamatova (Good Bye Lenin!) and Sergei Polunin (Murder on the Orient Express) and French actors Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Colour), Raphaël Personnaz (The Princess of Montpensier) and Olivier Rabourdin (Of Gods and Men), the latters perfect as usual.
Finally, The White Crow benefits from a spot on reconstitution, which doesn’t seem to have relied on CGIs but rather on clever camera angles, which is greatly enhanced by a restrained but evocative cinematography. Fiennes and his cinematographer Mike Eley (My Cousin Rachel), the latter despite or thanks to his previous experience in documentaries and TV, manage to make very good use of locations to create a succession of beautiful scenes whether it is in black and white Ukraine, empty St Petersburg or glamourous Paris. Fiennes’ intimate direction adds an additional layer to the reconstitution which turns out to be of an implacable efficiency during the third act.
Despite all these strong assets, the principal problem of The White Crow is maybe that it doesn’t prove to be as memorable as it should have been. It is really difficult to isolate elements that diminish its impact, but the film will most certainly fail to reach the impact it was destined to achieve… unlike the life of the artist it is inspired by.
The White Crow (2018)
Dir: Ralph Fiennes | Cast: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Louis Hofmann, Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes | Writers: David Hare (screenplay), Julie Kavanagh (Inspired by her book: "Rudolf Nureyev: The Life")