Ralph Fiennes’s portrait of Russian ballet icon Rudolph Nureyev aims high but doesn’t quite leap off the screen.
You don’t need to know a plié from a pirouette to enjoy this biopic, The White Crow, directed by Ralph Fiennes, that follows the events that led Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev to defect while on tour with the Kirov Ballet in 1961.
When making films about ballet stars, it’s always a challenge for a director to either go with a professional dancer who may not have the acting chops, or vice versa (and use body doubles or clever CGI).
In this instance, Fiennes – who also appears in the film as the Nureyev’s softly spoken teacher Pushkin – has gone with the former, casting lithe and chiselled-cheekboned Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko. And this big-screen newbie certainly brings an authenticity to the role, along with a suitably petulant pout – it’s a valiant attempt at portraying the uber-confident dancer who came from the wrong side of the tracks. (Fun fact: he was actually born on a train). Yet the downside is that Ivenko lacks the range or fire that an actor would bring to inhabiting the persona of one of the greatest icons of dance.
In some respects, there is something slightly muted overall about The White Crow. Nureyev’s sexuality, while never denied, is never given much air time. There are some longing looks, but the one key male lover we meet almost pops up as an afterthought, with little explanation.
And the climactic scenes at Le Bourget airport when everything comes to a head for this ballet bad-boy, while fascinating, would’ve benefited from a deft hand at creating some very real cinematic tension (this is only Fiennes’ third feature behind the camera).
Mention must be made of some of the strong women in the film. Chulpan Khamatova as Pushkin’s wife, Xenia and Adèle Exarchopoulos as a steely Clara Saint (who Nureyev befriends on the fateful tour of Paris) both played a crucial role in his life.
Told in Russian, French and English – this is an elegant and respectful telling of Nureyev’s story. And its message, to be unbowed in the face of tyrants, to demand something bigger from art, is certainly due some applause.