Film Review: “The White Crow” — God’s Acrobat

By Erica Abeel

The White Crow, wisely, offers up no easy answers regarding why Rudolf Nureyev defected.

The White Crow, directed by Ralph Fiennes. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, beginning on May 10.

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

In films about dancers the issue is always the casting.  Few dancers have the acting toolkit to carry an entire feature.  And even the most versatile actor can’t capture the physicality of a dancer, whose body has been distilled by years of training into a technical powerhouse and an expressive instrument.  (Notable exceptions in the pop domain include Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly)  Sure, the camera can cut away to a dancer-double — think Natalie Portman in Black Swan — but she never looks authentic.  What an actor can’t reproduce is a dancer’s banked energy; the elongated carriage, almost a character trait in itself, of a person who inhabits space differently than civilians. Acrobats of God, Martha Graham called them, only half joking.

In The White Crow, a non-conventional bio pic of Rudolf Nureyev, director Ralph Fiennes has found that elusive combination of a dancer-who-can-act: Oleg Ivenko, a Ukrainian first-time thespian and principal in the Tatar Ballet in Kazan.  Ivenko’s electric, often poignant, performance embodies the towering ambition of ballet’s first pop icon, his  intellectual curiosity, volatile temperament, and the scars left by his impoverished childhood. With his Slavic features, penetrating, sometimes impish gaze, Ivenko even looks like Nureyev.  And he does his own dancing.

The White Crow — a Russian expression for Nureyev’s uniqueness — opens shortly after Nureyev’s notorious defection to the West in Paris in 1961.  Alexander Pushkin, his devoted ballet master (Fiennes, purling out credible Russian in a sad, subdued tone) is grilled by a Soviet official about why the dancer jumped ship. Nureyev cares nothing about politics, Pushkin says, it was about dance.  And indeed, Crow is mainly, thrillingly, about dance, a multi-faceted portrait of an artist whose bravura style and alluring, feminized masculinity changed the role of male dancers in ballet.  (The creative process seems to be in vogue among filmmakers; the art house hit Never Look Away similarly explores the artistic journey of the painter Gerhard Richter, who was also caught in the gears of history.)

Jump back to summer of 1961, as young Nureyev in a black beret arrives in Paris with the renowned Kirov Ballet Company for its first visit outside the Soviet Union. He’s dazzled by the Palais Garnier (Paris Opera), hungry to dive into the epicenter of western culture.  Arriving at the Louvre before opening hour, he rushes to view Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, devouring every sinuosity of an extended arm.  In another museum visit, one with obvious homoerotic overtones, he prowls the white marble limbs and butts of god-like male bodies that mirror his own — and yes, the camera loves Ivenko’s body.  Nureyev’s sexuality is fleshed out via rather decorous flashbacks of his affair with Pushkin’s wife (Chulpan Khamatova) and  a concurrent rendezvous with a young German dancer (Louis Hoffman).

Before long, Nureyev has attracted a following among Parisian dancers awed by his star power, in particular one Pierre Lacotte (Raphael Peronnaz) who will play a crucial role in his later choice.  Nureyev also forms a close bond — discussing life, art, and dance while strolling along the Seine — with wealthy Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos).  Clara moves in exalted social circles that include Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture, and she provides entry to the louche pleasures of Parisian boites.  “You like the capitalist life,” says Rudi’s KGB handler (a superb Aleksey Morozov).  Even more, the autodidact is desperate to transcend the image of the “dumb dancer.”

In this third outing as a director (after Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman), Fiennes subverts the usual form of a bio pic.  His screenwriter, British dramatist David Hare, obviously found the chronological soup-to-nuts approach, with its occasional flashback, soporific.  In response, he has chopped up time into three periods: Paris ’61, Nureyev’s hardscrabble childhood in Uta, and his student training in Leningrad (the latter two in black and white to convey the remoter past).

While the time-tripping keeps you on your toes, some viewers may feel the toggling back and forth throws them out of the narrative.  Following hard on the first scene, the camera pivots to Rudi’s rude birth aboard a Russian train.  Or, as he stands in the wings in fabulous makeup, about to perform Le Corsaire, he flashes back to his boyhood self watching his mother slog through snow in a Russian winter.

Is this needlessly complicated?  “Why not say what happened?” runs poet Robert Lowell’s phrase.  I came to trust the frequent dips backward.  They resonate hauntingly, sometimes obliquely, with, say, Nureyev’s obsession with toy trains in Paris.  They mark the depth of his ties to Russia.  Most crucially, they up the ante during the terrifically tense episodes in Le Bourget, when the KGB operative puts the screws on Nureyev as he eyes the possibility of defection. Keep a watch out for an earlier scene in which Nureyev pushes back against the State while a student in Leningrad, which sets up his final revolt.

Oleg Ivenko’s rudimentary, heavily accented English sometimes puts a crimp in the dialog.  But Fiennes has succeeded in coaching the novice actor in how to “keep it cooking” through multiple takes with varying camera set-ups, a skill quite alien to a dancer’s explosive one-time moment on stage. I’m only sorry the performance and ballet class sequences weren’t allowed to run longer. Exaropoulos as Clara Saint looks like she’s wandered into the wrong film; her presence is so anemic and charisma-free that it’s hard to comprehend Nureyev’s bond with her (as written, it’s partly due to her willingness to accept his sometimes boorish stunts, driven by his insecurity about his “peasant” origins).

The film offers up no easy answers regarding why Nureyev defected. His decision made pariahs of his family. He never returned to the Soviet Union and was tried in his absence for treason.  Hare, with political acuity, makes the KGB guy a quasi-sympathetic character, a man who also has his reasons. The dramatist veers away from harping on the cliche of a “leap to freedom.” We can fill in the blanks, imagine the greater artistic freedom Nureyev discovered in the west and, because he was gay, the sexual freedom.

Yet, at zero hour in Le Bourget, Nureyev’s clearly torn. He might well have gone on to a great career in Russia. The Soviets panicked and leaned on him too hard, it’s implied, making the suspicious claim that Khrushchev wanted him back in Russia for a special Moscow gig.  He’d be returning alone, while the rest of the troupe went on to London.  “You’ve lost him,” a French cop observes. Flash to Rudi’s first dance lessons as a child, a teacher reverently guiding his feet into age old positions.  The film’s Nureyev writes Clara, “I was born on a train.  I can never return to my country.  I’ll never be happy in yours.”

Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her recent novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the 50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing, she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre.

1 Comment

  1. Celia Paul on May 14, 2019 at 10:43 am

    wonderful thoughtful review which captures both the movie and the person

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