WHITE CROW – Review
A “white crow” is a Russian idiom meaning a misfit, an oddball, someone who does not fit the mold – a perfect description for ballet star Rudolph Nureyev.
In the 1960s, ballet stars and opera divas were pop culture rock stars, as strange as that might seems to modern ears. One of the biggest ballet stars was Rudolph Nureyev, the Russian dancer who transformed men’s role in ballet from mere props for ballerinas to dramatic, dynamic stars in their own right. But WHITE CROW takes place long before all that, following the life of the young dancer from his hard rural Russian childhood to his tumultuous years training under the Soviet Union system to the edge of stardom while touring with the Kirov Ballet Company in Paris.
Ralph Fiennes directs this gorgeous, glorious biopic about the early life of this great 20th century artist whose rebellious spirit and innovative ideas transformed his art form. Dancer Oleg Ivenko plays Nureyev, in a surprisingly strong acting debut. Fiennes himself takes a supporting role as Nureyev’s ballet teacher and mentor Alexander Pushkin.
WHITE CROW is based on a true story but it unfolds more like a thriller than a conventional biopic, particularly in the tension-filled last half. The film jumps back and forth in time, between Nureyev in Paris, enjoying Parisian culture and nightlife but under the scrutiny of his KGB minder, Nureyev’s brutal poverty-stricken childhood in rural Russia near Ufa, and his days as an ambitious student under Pushkin in Leningrad. Distinguishing the Paris scenes from the childhood ones is easy, in part because the former are in black and white, but keeping the closer-in-time scenes in Paris and at the dance academy in Leningrad straight is a bit trickier. However, keeping an eye on the distinctive settings helps, as does the presence of Fiennes as the ballet master.
Adele Exarchopoulos plays Clara Saint, a wealthy and well-connected young French woman Nureyev meets in Paris and would play a crucial role in this story. Chulpan Khamatova plays Alexander Pushkin’s warm-hearted wife Xenia, who provides soup, support, and more.
The film is visually lush, especially in the Paris scenes, where the 1961 period styles and sets give it an exciting boost. The photography is equally strong, with the austere black and white photography underlining the harsh poverty of his early life, and contrasting starkly with the stately formal spaces of the dance academy in Leningrad as well as the colorful if cramped apartment of the Pushkins.
This is actor Ralph Fiennes’ third outing as director, his other films being CORILANUS and THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Fiennes had no particular interest in ballet when he read Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Nureyev, “Rudolph Nureyev: The Life,” on which the film is partly based, but he was struck by the dramatic story of the dancer’s early life. Fiennes’ producer on his previous films and this one, Gabrielle Tana, has a more direct link, having been a ballet dancer as a child and having even met Nureyev.
Unlike many actors turned director, Fiennes wisely keeps his supporting if pivotal character’s presence low-key, keeping the focus on the young star. The film has the right mix of dance sequences and drama to satisfy and please dance fans without slowing down the story or losing the non-dance fans in the audience. Images of the real Nureyev dancing are shown over the end credits, a nice final touch.
The acting is strong throughout. Fiennes makes the most of Oleg Ivenko’s good looks, although Ivenko does not resemble Nureyev. Instead, it is all in Ivenko’s smoldering stare and arrogant demeanor as he creates his portrait of the ambitious rising star. Ivenko exudes a sense of star power, whether he is acting or dancing, which greatly aids the dramatic scenes at the airport late in the film. Adele Exarchopoulos is charismatic and a touch mysterious as Clara Saint, adding greatly to some fiery scenes between her and Ivenko’s Nureyev. Likewise, Chulpan Khamatova is perfect as Xenia Pushkin, in their shifting, complicated relationship.
WHITE CROW deals with Nureyev’s sexuality in a frank, matter-of-fact way but does not dwell on it. Instead, the focus is one Nureyev’s personal drive and ambition, and particularly on his bold, rebellious nature.
WHITE CROW is a taut dramatic thriller that is as much about overcoming adversity and the drive of an artist to be free, as it is about Nureyev, the Cold War or ballet, although it is about those too. It opens Friday, May 17, at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.
RATING: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars