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The tale of Russian ballet great Rudolf Nureyev’s youth and dramatic defection to the West in June 1961 is told in a credible but unnecessarily messy manner in The White Crow. Writer David Hare and director Ralph Fiennes have a good feel for the artistic world the story inhabits and professional dancer Oleg Ivenko does a more than creditable job in personifying one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artistic figures, but the narrative bounces all over the place trying to cover too much ground when concentrating on the core drama would have far better served the desired end.
As the British-made film isn’t scheduled to open anywhere commercially until next year, there is time to do some beneficial trimming and reshaping if its creators are so inclined; the makings of a more coherent and gripping version of the key events would seem to be present.
Most people who know that Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union in order to pursue an international career are probably unaware of how tense and haphazard the actual circumstances were at Le Bourget Airport in Paris when the 23-year-old virtuoso resisted orders from his Soviet minders to get on a plane back home. This extraordinary scene makes for a great climax, and one wouldn’t think that it would lie beyond the abilities of the keen talents involved here to figure out the best way to inexorably build their story toward it.
After all, Nureyev’s life began in unimaginably humble circumstances — he was born aboard a train in Siberia in 1938, an event that opens the film — and by the time he came of age as a dancer, the Cold War ruled out any possibility for young Soviet artists to pursue international careers.
Hare’s script uses a hop, skip and jump approach, vaulting at once to Paris 1961 where, in the West for the first time with the Kirov Ballet, young Rudi (Oleg Ivenko, a prominent Russian dancer whose looks and abilities sufficiently resemble those of his character to make you believe him as Nureyev) ignores his minders’ orders and takes a walk through the city on his own. Wherever he goes he’s shadowed and, as punishment for his willful transgressions of mingling with foreigners, he’s not allowed to dance on opening night.
Vaulting back six years, the film offers glimpses of the teenager’s talents and willfulness, his vast ego, shortcomings in his training (he started late) that he made up for with intense focus and, at 17, being taken under the wing of Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes), ballet master of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet — to the point of being invited to move into the cramped apartment he shares with his wife, who takes a rather different sort of personal interest in the dashing, insolent lad.
From the beginning, considerable stress is placed on the young man’s ego and his effort to set himself apart from mere mortals. Even as a child he is shown as refusing to participate in activities with other kids; he’s impudent, studies other arts on his own, blanches at authority and knows he’s special and different. In a communist society, this is not easy, but in the creative world he inhabits, he more or less gets away with it.
Structurally, however, the film begins splintering in ways that are not at all helpful. One minute he’s working hard to improve his dancing skills, another he’s cavorting around Paris with wealthy but sullen socialite Clara Saint (Blue Is the Warmest Color star Adele Exarchopoulos), to whom he reveals that he was called “The White Crow” as a youngster, while she discloses that she is engaged to the son of French Minister of Culture Andre Malraux. And there are numerous cutaways to his impoverished youth, which are utterly useless as we get it all the first time.
Several, if relatively brief, sequences show Nureyev dancing at various periods in his young life. These are nice, even impressive at times, but seem shuffled into the narrative like playing cards and, to viewers unversed in the finer points of ballet, won’t mean much from the perspective of learning about his blossoming as a performer.
In the broad sense, the molding and shaping of the film feels wrong; all the jumping around in time is distracting and confusing. Old-fashioned as it may seem to take a conventional narrative approach, when you have such a strong climax to which to build, it would seem advisable to simply build to it inexorably with a straight chronological line. The way the film is presented now doesn’t maximize either interest or suspense.
There are other problems. Although she does open doors for Nureyev in Paris, Clara is basically a bore, and a peek at some backstage rivalries and/or friendships could have livened things up a bit. Because of all the back-and-forth cutting, including to his first acknowledged gay love affair back in the Soviet Union, dramatic tension isn’t allowed to build properly, with the result that the film never acquires the suspense and steam it should.
All the same, a good picture still might be in here somewhere, if its best narrative line could be identified and stuck to.
The language scheme of The White Crow is rather unusual and takes some time to adjust to. The Russian characters all speak in Russian, including Fiennes (who sounds very proficient), but in Paris, Nureyev insists upon speaking English instead of French, which he claims he doesn’t speak. This makes all the French characters speak in English rather than in French, which is fine for Clara but bizarre when it involves random French people Nureyev encounters.
The ballet sequences possess a welcome verisimilitude, but the film could have used more of them.
Production companies: BBC Films, HanWay Films, Magnolia Mae Films, Montebellow Productions, Work in Progress
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adele Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphael Peronnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin, Calypso Valois, Louis
Hoffman, Olivier Rabourdin
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Screenwriter: David Hare
Producers: Gabrielle Tana, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Andrew Levitas, Francois Ivernel
Director of photography: Mike Eley
Production designer: Anne Seibel
Costume designer: Madeline Fontane
Editor: Barney Pilling
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Dance advisor/choreographer: Johan Kobborg
Casting: Alla Petelina, Elodie Demy, Nenad Pavlovic, Anja Dihrberg
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
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