- The White Crow
- Directed by: Ralph Fiennes
- Written by: David Hare
- Starring: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Ralph Fiennes
- Classification: 14A; 127 minutes
Rudolf Nureyev’s most famous partner, the English ballerina Margot Fonteyn, knew that dance was hard to talk about. Allegedly, when asked by a journalist to give some postshow remarks on her performance, she summarily shut him down: “I explained it when I danced it.”
Fonteyn recognized that language was a counterintuitive way to engage with an art form defined by its physicality and muteness. If director Ralph Fiennes and playwright David Hare saw this ineffability as an interesting challenge when they set about creating The White Crow, a biopic of Nureyev, one of the most important dancers of the 20th-century, I wished they’d experimented a little more. Midway through the film, Nureyev’s most influential ballet teacher, Aleksandr Pushkin (played by a Russian-speaking Fiennes), has a short monologue about the true meaning of ballet. It isn’t technique – the height of a dancer’s jumps or the number of turns he’s able to perform sequentially. It’s about “story.”
It seems odd that the thoughtful, quick-witted and naturally recalcitrant Nureyev didn’t push back with a few questions. Isn’t “story” something of an empty platitude routinely offered up as the point of art? How does that distinguish dance from literature, opera, film or theatre? Aren’t stories best suited for children?
This anticlimactic bit of wisdom could epitomize why it’s so hard to make art about other art forms – if evoking ballet’s majesty was, in fact, among Fiennes and Hare’s objectives. Maybe they were drawn to parallels between Nikita Khrushchev’s USSR and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with an eye toward the predicament of the oppressed artist. (A curious real-life reference that bears some untangling is that dancer Sergei Polunin is cast as Nureyev’s roommate – he’s the ardent Putin supporter, recently fired from the Paris Opera Ballet for sexist and anti-gay slurs on Instagram). Or maybe Fiennes was just looking for a good excuse to learn Russian. (To my non-Slavic ear, he’s done remarkably well).
These maybes would be immaterial in a more artistically rewarding film, but they loom large in The White Crow, Fiennes’s third directorial effort. It’s a perplexing movie, the kind of adaptation that’s easy to damn with faint praise; it’s effective, coherent and watchable. There’s plenty to enjoy looking at, from scenes of dancers clad in 1960s evening wear sipping from coupe glasses at the Palais Garnier to shots of the Seine’s riverbank at nightfall. If Fiennes and Hare had been tasked with telling the story of Nureyev’s early life in an accessible and comprehensive way, free of ambitious aesthetic liberties or cinematic innovation – a sort of protracted Heritage Minute of the dancer’s 1961 defection – I would give them a high grade.
Based on Julie Kavanaugh’s 2007 biography, the film relays the first 23 years of Nureyev’s life, from his birth on the Trans-Siberian Railway to his dramatic defection at the Paris airport. Fiennes found a Nureyev-lookalike for the main character, Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko, who is both powerful and understated in his first acting role. Nureyev had a reputation for his fervent work ethic – he started ballet quite late, at age 11, and when he arrived at Leningrad at the age of 17, he had a lot of catching-up to do quickly. Ivenko is great at depicting the sweat and blood that defines practice. Some lovely studio scenes – the men in crisp white T-shirts and black tights – capture the discipline, elegance, deference and virtuosity so distinctive to ballet culture.
Nureyev was also known for his ego and temper, and Ivenko is just as effective at relaying these characteristics. He shows inconceivable rudeness to shop clerks and waiters, not to mention toward Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the grieving French/Chilean heiress whom he dates while in Paris. But while Ivenko can dance, the dance scenes can leave us feeling bemused, shortchanged. Although esteemed ballet choreographer Johan Kobborg recreates some of Nureyev’s technical quirks – his too-straight arms and imperfect turnout – Ivenko isn’t able to capture any of Rudy’s animalistic magic. When Saint says that, watching him, she was so transfixed she forgot her grief, we wonder: What did she see that we didn’t? The film may go to lengths to tell us that Nureyev was sensational to watch, but we don’t experience much of this power or magnetism as viewers.
If Fiennes hasn’t made enough strong, interpretative choices as a director, he has knack for textured details that lightly, and cumulatively, build mood. A 17-year-old Nureyev is seduced (arguably sexually abused) by Pushkin’s wife, and Fiennes subtly evokes undertones of fear, desire and shame. Scenes of Nureyev’s childhood gently depict the dreadful poverty of wartime Russia. And as a stoic and weathered middle-aged ballet teacher, who lives in a cramped apartment and maintains a tender and dignified devotion to his craft, Fiennes gives the film’s best performance.
The White Crow opens May 10 in Toronto and Vancouver, May 17 in Montreal