The White Crow

THE WHITE CROW. Starring: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, and Adele Exarchopoulos. Also starring Sergei Polunin and Chulpan Khamatova. Directed by Ralph Fiennes. Rated M (Coarse language and nudity). 127 min.

This British film is based on the 2007 biography,“Rudolf Nureyev: The Life” by British authoress and trained ballet dancer, Julie Kavanaugh. It tells the story of Nureyev’s defection to the West.

Nureyev’s defection stunned the West at the height of the Cold War. The film’s title stems from the Russian phrase, “belaya vorona”, or “white crow”, which means an unusual outsider or nonconformist, who is “not like the others”. Nureyev had extreme difficulty in conforming to official Soviet expectations, and even to the rules of his own ballet school in Leningrad.

Nureyev shocked the ballet world, and the world at large, when he defected sensationally at the age of 23 to the West at Le Bourget airport in Paris in June, 1961. The film is constructed around that incident. The actual defection concludes the movie, and it is directed and acted movingly.

Worried about his loyalty and commitment to his country, and especially suspicious of his friendship with Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos), the Communist authorities decide to send him back to Russia, rather than allow him to travel on with the Kirov ballet to London. Nureyev’s constant flaunting of the rules, his relentless drive to succeed, and his spirited embrace of Parisian life - openly visible to the authorities who were watching him - all led to his defection.

In the film, scenes of Nureyev’s stay in the West, as an acclaimed dancer, are interspersed with scenes of his hardships as a child living in the provincial town of Ufa in central Russia. In the movie, we learn about his rise to fame as an exceptional student in Leningrad, where he always had trouble with satisfying rules, and meeting the demands for obedience.

Ralph Fiennes directs the film in a telling, detailed way. The film is true to fact in displaying the sexual behaviour of Nureyev, who had both female and male partners. He is recorded in history as dying of the complications of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 54.

Male nudity in the movie is highly explicit at times. Oleg Ivenko takes the role of Nureyev, and Ralph Fiennes takes the role of Nureyev’s teacher and mentor in Leningrad, Alexander Pushkin. Ivenko is a trained ballet dancer, and he attempts to capture Nureyev’s artistry, but the film spends most of its time on the tortured character of Nureyev rather than on Nureyev’s prowess as an exceptional dancer that demonstrated a level magnetism that held audiences world-wide in awe. Only a good dancer could attempt the role, and Oleg Ivenko rises to the challenge.

The most exciting scenes in the film are those attempting to show Nureyev dancing with unbelievable athleticism and grace. The cinematography and Ivenko’s skill as a dancer, attempt to capture Nureyev’s appeal as an artist and manage to partially succeed. The drama surrounding Nureyev’s personality and the reasons lying behind his defection, however, are notably restrained. Pushkin’s description of Nureyev as suffering “an explosion of character” is never elaborated fully.

The film itself overuses the device of “flashbacks”, and underplays the intensity of Nureyev’s personality. Dramatically, we understand better the character of Nureyev’s teacher, than Nureyev himself, though it is always clear that Nureyev’s defection had profound political consequences for himself and his family. Only when the Berlin Wall went down, was Nureyev reunited with his family in Russia.

This is a film that exposes Nureyev more as a man and tortured person, than as a breathtakingly stunning dancer. In the movie, Nureyev’s ambition to succeed and the compulsive nature of his driven ego, are given more attention than the artistry that drove Nureyev to world-wide greatness. “Isolated by his talent”, Nureyev remains an enigma.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Universal Pictures International
Released July 18th., 2019

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