The White Crow
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Talent: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Louis Hofmann, Adèle Exarchopoulos
Released: 22 March
“If I had danced tonight you would remember” Oleg Ivenko plays Rudolph Nureyev in Ralph Fiennes directorial debut about his defection to the West.
The protagonist of The White Crow is a historical figure, but this isn’t a biopic – Ralph Fiennes’ film omits the depth of character-study that biographical films are traditionally associated with. Rather David Hares’ script focuses on a single, defining episode in the life of one Rudolf Nureyev, citizen of the Soviet Union and his generation’s greatest ballet dancer. After a spell in St. Petersburg’s prestigious Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, Nureyev joined the Kirov ballet troupe and caused such a sensation amongst the cultural elite that word spread to the heights of government. In an unprecedented act of diplomatic statecraft by the truculent Soviet Union, the Kirov company was permitted, at the height of the Cold War, to perform to ecstatic, sold-out theatres in Paris. That the Iron Curtain was flung apart for two whole weeks serves to express the pride the USSR took in their ballet, and in Nureyev in particular – a move that would backfire spectacularly thanks to Nureyev’s maverick temperament.
Superficiality haunts Fiennes’ treatment of the dancer, in both senses of the word: the narrative is light on substance, and the film is enraptured by the physical beauty of its central character. Nureyev is never really gotten to grips with, though much is gestured at: his family’s poverty, his complex maternal bond (Hare also wrote The Hours), his childhood feeling of abandonment and his repressed homosexuality are all intriguing elements, like signposts to a different and, to be blunt, better film – here they vanish almost as soon as they appear, without consequence or development.
The primary loss, however, is that the documented force of Nureyev’s strong and idiosyncratic personality is never properly captured. All attempts to deliver on this promise are abortive: an early conversation with his French counterpart is peppered with grandiloquent statements on the necessity of rejecting fear to dance; later he says, as though speaking a sacred truth, that he would like to live in a church – his new friends look at him with a mixture of awe and incredulity, marvelling at his wisdom, his naïve profundity. These clunky scenes all but scream ‘Nureyev is unique’, without in the least functioning as to show why.
Nor is Nureyev the only character whose role is stated rather than justified. His teacher (played by Fiennes), the teacher’s wife with whom he has an affair, his French friend, a German dancer he sleeps with – they are all equally blank. Worst is Clare Saint (the otherwise brilliant Adèle Exarchopoulos), who falls in love with Nureyev in spite of the fact that her boyfriend has died merely days ago in a freak accident. We understand nothing about her motivations, only hearing the oft-repeated fact that her boyfriend was the son of André Malraux. Though the original subject matter is intriguing, some of the shots of Paris are beautiful, and the final set-piece – as Nureyev is effectively kidnapped in an airport by KGB agents – is genuinely exciting, the film is consistently thwarted by its own shallowness. Even lovers of the ballet will not be entertained.
Words: Thomas Lordan
llustration: Rob Mirolo