We had the opportunity to see a preview screening of the new Rudolf Nureyev biopic by Ralph Fiennes, The White Crow, thanks to Universal Pictures. The film will be in Australian cinemas from 18 July 2019.
Partway between the film adaptations of Billy Elliot and Mao’s Last Dancer sits The White Crow, a Rudolf Nureyev biopic that is as much about defection from an oppressive nationalist regime as it is about dance, charting Nureyev’s rise from a bleak, poor upbringing to a shining star on the world stage. The film opens with his birth on the Trans-Siberian Railway and culminates in his dramatic defection from the USSR in Le Bourget airport, Paris, in 1961. In the interim, the audience is taken on a non-linear journey through Nureyev’s life until that point, based on the book Rudolf Nureyev: The Life written by Julie Kavanagh and adapted to screenplay by David Hare. This storytelling format means that it is not always clear where the characters are in space and time, but paints a clear and effective picture nonetheless.
Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko is intense and aloof as Rudolf Nureyev, his first acting role, throwing some of Nureyev’s famous tantrums and behaving with his characteristic arrogance. Ralph Fiennes, in addition to his directorial role, is Nureyev’s foil, giving a reserved performance as reputed Russian ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin.
Nureyev’s childhood is portrayed as being quite literally bleak, showing him in shades of black and white as a small, quiet boy with an absent father, many siblings, and a young mother scrabbling to provide. His years at the Kirov Ballet’s Vaganova Academy in Leningrad have a lighter colour palette between the white of ballet uniforms and the light-filled dance studios. Paris is sunnier still, but it is the colour and freedom of its art and nightlife that seems to sweep Nureyev away. He befriends Western dancers despite being warned against it by the company’s KGB bodyguards, including French socialite Clara Saint (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) who ultimately played a key role in his defection, and frequents bars and nightclubs including the renowned Crazy Horse cabaret. Alarmed by his misbehaviour, the KGB attempts to force his return to the Soviet Union while the rest of the company moves on to dance in London, prompting his famous defection.
It is hard to say whether Ivenko did justice to Nureyev as a dancer given that, in the few scenes where he was shown to be dancing rather than simply rehearsing steps, the camera tracked him closely from unusual angles – perhaps to make his leaps seem higher? – but this was distracting and did not give an opportunity for the audience to appreciate Ivenko’s technique and allegro, which seemed perfectly sound and impressive as they were. For a movie about the greatest male ballet dancer of all time, there is scarce screen time dedicated to his craft.
Nureyev is shown to be a solitary, purposefully isolated figure, from his childhood all the way through his training; a hard worker and a perfectionist despite his known lack of technical perfection. Although containing little full-fledged bodily artistry, the film contains much discussion of art and philosophy, and Nureyev himself is portrayed as being inherently and intuitively an artist, spending hours engrossed in the Louvre museum and the Hermitage in Leningrad.
Nureyev’s bisexuality is addressed in the film – Pushkin’s wife Xenia (played by Chulpan Khamatova), who has mothered him for months, is shown to seduce him while he is injured, and this affair continues, perhaps reluctantly, until he leaves for Paris. At the same time, Nureyev is shown to be sleeping with fellow dancer Teja Kremke (Louis Hofmann), a ballet student from East Germany.
A few things, like a scene where Nureyev is taken into the woods by his father and left indefinitely beside a fire, seemed to add more to the atmosphere and aesthetic than to have a payoff in terms of plot or character. From the very first scene, trains are used as a recurring motif in the film, although the meaning of this beyond surface-level ideas of transience and being without boundaries is unclear.
The White Crow is a fantastically tense film, full of drama made all the more tantalising for having really happened, but I was left wanting more of the dancing that catapulted Nureyev to fame among the Parisians, and later the world, despite his apparent unlikeability as a person.