‘White Crow’ is a So­viet po­lit­i­cal thriller dressed up as a dance movie

The Tribune (SLO) - - Movies - BY KATIE WALSH

For his third di­rec­to­rial out­ing, es­teemed Eng­lish ac­tor Ralph Fi­ennes tack­les the story of Rus­sian bal­let dancer Ru­dolf Nureyev and his high-pro­file de­fec­tion from the So­viet Union in 1961. In “The White Crow,” the spirit of Nureyev seems to strain against the choices of the film, in the same way he strained against the rigid ad­her­ence to tra­di­tion and gov­ern­men­tal re­stric­tions of the So­viet Union. As Nureyev, Ukrainian bal­let dancer Oleg Ivenko is like a caged bird, eyes flash­ing, wings bat­ting. He is an as­ton­ish­ing dis­cov­ery who car­ries the unique biopic, a po­lit­i­cal thriller dressed up as a dance movie.

Fi­ennes and writer David Hare use three eras from Nureyev’s life to ex­plain his de­fec­tion. His ar­rival into the world, born on a Trans-siberian train into a life of poverty in the land­locked city of Ufa, is in­ter­cut with his touch­down in 1961 Paris as a dancer with the Kirov Bal­let on a pub­lic­ity tour of Western Europe. The time­lines are dis­tin­guished vis­ually and fit the norms of the era – child­hood is high-con­trast grayscale, while the Parisian sec­tion is shot on color Su­per 16 mm with breezy, hand­held new wave touch. A clas­si­cal style marks his time spent in Len­ingrad train­ing un­der the close eye of bal­let mas­ter Alexan­der Pushkin (Fi­ennes), whose wife takes the re­bel­lious Nureyev un­der her wing, and un­der her own roof.

Ques­tioned about the de­fec­tion, Pushkin qui­etly of­fers an in­ter­roga­tor a sim­ple, de­cep­tively com­means plex ex­pla­na­tion for Nureyev’s ac­tions: “an ex­plo­sion of char­ac­ter.” The cu­ri­ous phrase en­com­passes both Nureyev’s outre per­son­al­ity and re­sis­tance to rules, as well as his ex­pres­sion of true self. When his French friend Clara (Adele Exar­chopou­los) asks him what he wants dur­ing the air­port stand­off with his So­viet han­dlers and the French po­lice, Nureyev re­sponds sim­ply, “I want to be free.” His de­fec­tion is the purest ex­pres­sion of his own de­sire, his own char­ac­ter.

The script speaks to his char­ac­ter and cir­cum­stance, what bal­let of­fers Nureyev and what it to him. But the film suc­ceeds when it shows, not tells, in move­ment and com­po­si­tion. Ivenko has to dance beau­ti­fully. But he has to act while danc­ing as well, em­body­ing Nureyev’s grit, de­ter­mi­na­tion, fly­ing across the floor, nearly burst­ing out of his skin with “spirit,” as his French friend Pierre says (Raphael Per­son­naz). A few bril­liant shots de­pict how sti­fled he feels, es­pe­cially in the cramped quar­ters of the Pushkin apart­ment, sub­mit­ting to the will of Xe­nia (Chul­pan Kham­a­tova).

There is much to laud in this lay­ered and rich por­trait, es­pe­cially Ivenko’s per­for­mance. But the script, while try­ing to do so much, lacks in cru­cial ar­eas. Many of Nureyev’s com­pa­tri­ots feel un­der­writ­ten, in­clud­ing Clara and Xe­nia, and his room­mate Yuri, played by Rus­sian dancer Sergei Pol­unin. But Ivenko, who bears a strong re­sem­blance to Nureyev, is trans­fix­ing, as well as Fi­ennes and Kham­a­tova. The per­for­mances, and the beau­ti­fully cap­tured mo­ments of dance, are strong enough to outshine any weak story el­e­ments.


Oleg Ivenko plays Ru­dolf Nureyev in “The White Crow.”

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