The story of Rudolf Nureyev‘s defection to the West.
Ralph Fiennes third film in the director’s chair is a biopic about Rudolf Nureyev, a supremely talented Russian ballet dancer who defected from his country to France in 1961. It’s another interesting choice from Fiennes following on from a modern Shakespeare adaptation in ‘Coriolanus’ and ‘The Invisible Woman’, which explored an affair Charles Dickens had in the latter years of his life. These films all have one film in common, that of a tortured male protagonist, and in ‘The White Crow’ I felt Fiennes did a good job of getting at the heart of Nureyev’s dilemma and what drove him to defect from the country of his birth.
The film is primarily in Russian, entirely so during the scenes set in Russia, with a mixture of French, English and Russian used whilst the drama is in Paris. I listened to an interview with Ralph Fiennes on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s radio show where he remarked that the time has gone when it was acceptable to speak in heavily accented English when setting a film in a foreign country and I thought it was quite a refreshing approach and ‘The White Crow’ is certainly a more authentic and better film as a result. Another key decision Fiennes made was to cast a ballet dancer (Oleg Ivenko) as opposed to an actor as Nureyev, basing this on the assumption that it would be easier to teach a dancer to act than an actor to dance, and this mostly works especially during the scenes of Nureyev dancing, even if Ivenko’s performance in other scenes is occasionally wooden. I’ve read some other reviews that have been disparaging of the film because of how dislikeable Nureyev is as a person and yes he can be a prick at times (a scene at dinner is particularly galling) but I felt his persona worked. I felt that Nureyev was portrayed as someone who had the partly earned arrogance of a top sportsman, someone who knows he’s the best, and the information provided about his background and his upbringing made his defensive demeanour understandable if not excusable.
The film is undoubtedly too long and at times feels like a really long build up to the final act covering Nureyev’s defection. The narrative runs through a series of scenes with Nureyev and various companions having moral and existential conversations outlining the differences between the free, capitalist lifestyle of Paris and communist Russia, in order to articulate the dilemma our protagonist faces. This is interesting material but it starts to feel like repetition by the second hour when a less is more approach would have sufficed. This does all start to feel worthwhile as we approach the sequence detailing Nureyev’s defection at the airport and this is truly thrilling, aided by the dynamics established between the film’s key players and some spy craft and sleight of hand to reach the crucial moment. It’s just a shame that it took around 100 minutes to get there, some of which lacked the drive to keep me fully engaged.
‘The White Crow’ is another solid drama from Ralph Fiennes showing him to be a talented filmmaker as well as an actor, and although it definitely drags in parts I did enjoy it overall.
Directed By: Ralph Fiennes
Starring: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Chulpan Khamatova, Ralph Fiennes, Aleksey Morozov, Anastasiya Meskova, Dmitriy Karanevskiy, Nadezhda Markina, Kseniya Ryabinkina, Raphaël Personnaz, Olivier Rabourdin, Ravshana Kurkova, Louis Hofmann, Sergei Polunin, Maksimilian Grigoriyev, Zach Avery and Yves Heck