As a director, Ralph Fiennes shows the same alertness for telling details and rich characterization that he does as an actor. And that’s saying something. His talent shines in The White Crow, a look at the early life of ballet great Rudolf Nureyev, up to and including his defection from Russia and the Kirov Ballet at the Paris-Le Bourget airport in 1961. He was 23. The White Crow is not a biopic. It’s an impressionistic glimpse at the forces driving Nureyev — something of a diva even then — to accept no borders or limits in letting his artistry run fee.
The White Crow (a Russian term for outlier) is Fiennes’ third film as a director, following Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman, in which he played, respectively, a soldier and an author (Charles Dickens), both thrust into the limelight. Nureyev is no exception. Fiennes, who discovered Julie Kavanagh’s 2007 Nureyev biography over a decade ago, uses only the first five chapters in his film about the dancer who played near every corner of the globe before dying of complications from AIDs in 1993. Working from a potent script by noted playwright and screenwriter David Hare (The Hours, The Reader), Fiennes gives his period drama a present-tense urgency that draws us into the life of Nureyev in the fascinating act of inventing himself.
Fiennes made the bold decision to cast a dancer in the role, figuring it would be impossible to teach an actor to dance like a master. Good call. Ukranian dancer Oleg Ivenko, a soloist at the Jalil Tatar Ballet Theater, brings just the right note of youthful energy and sexual swagger to the role, speaking in Russian and accented English, his eyes alert to every challenge and perceived threat. Ivenko has a natural screen presence, which Nureyev never had as an actor — catch him at your peril in the title role of the great lover in 1977’s Valentino. Ivenko manages to hold his own even in scenes with Fiennes. The two-time Oscar nominee (Schindler’s List, The English Patient) , plays the famed dancer master Alexander Pushkin. Acting the role of St. Petersburg’s most respected ballet instructor, Fiennes — speaking only in Russian — shows a reserve that nonetheless doesn’t miss a trick as Pushkin strives to keep politics out of art and protect a protégé who recklessly carries on with the master’s wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova). Nureyev is also shown having sex with men, including Yuri Soloview, played with charisma to spare by Sergei Polunin, Ivenko’s fellow Ukrainian ballet star. It’s as if Nureyev’s appetite for experience can’t be closed in by conventional morality or gender traps.
The ballet sequences, performed by Ivenko, Polunin and other dancers representing the Kirov company, are beautifully executed. But Fiennes isn’t interested in constructing his own version of The Red Shoes. What intrigues Fiennes as a filmmaker is the drive that keeps Nureyev going when forces build inexorably against him. He wants us to know Nureyev as a man.
Fiennes intercuts scenes — shot in widescreen monochrome — of Nureyev’s childhood poverty, including his birth on a Trans-Siberian train, to reveal his rigorous training by the state and his life as a have-not. You sense this young dancer is champing at the bit. Far from avoiding the spotlight of fame, Nureyev revels in it, even as his outspoken personality wins him as many enemies as it does friends.
In a series of hugely entertaining moments, we watch Nureyev discover the Paris club scene while evading his KGB handlers. He strikes up a deep and lasting friendship with Clara Saint (a silky cool Adèle Exarchopoulos), who’s still not over the death of her lover, the son of André Malraux, France’s minister of cultural affairs. Having friends in high places comes in handy when Nureyev decides to seek asylum in France.
Fiennes builds suspense and gut-clutching tension at the airport when Nureyev makes his decision to defect. Why did he do it? Fiennes offers no easy answers, mostly because Nureyev didn’t have any himself. On one side are the Russians, who order him home, ostensibly to receive an award from Premier Khrushchev, but more likely to hold him there as a virtual prisoner. On the other side is his ambition to succeed on a world stage and charge into a scary unknown. Fiennes makes the weight of the choice palpable. Part thriller, part meditation on life and art, part portrait of a man on a tightrope, The White Crow may be juggling more themes than it can handle. But Fiennes makes the result a thing of bruising beauty and an exhilarating gift.