‘White Crow’––or ‘belaya vorona’––is a Russian expression used to describe a non-conformist, one who does not belong. Though the expression lends itself well to dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s renowned fearlessness and arrogance, its definition in the title cards at the beginning of the film immediately signposts familiar tropes of the artist biopic; someone is going to overcome difficult circumstances and it’s going to be creatively spectacular.
There have been a few musical biopics recently that have used this formula to fairly unremarkable effect. Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, delivering something of a superficial (but enjoyable) ‘Best of Freddie Mercury’ supercut. It would be easy to repeat this with Nureyev’s life, as the rock-star nature of his later career would make for much more exciting viewing and would arguably better reinforce his legacy as his name begins to drift slightly from the public memory (ballet is, after all, a very niche world). However, director Ralph Fiennes (this is his third directorial effort) and writer David Hare choose to emphasise Nureyev’s early career––before his infamous defection from the USSR––in order to locate his genius in his rebellion from class and political structures.
The film is primarily set in 1961, the year of Nureyev’s defection. Having made a name for himself in the USSR, the burgeoning diva of a young dancer travels to Paris with the Kirov ballet where he immediately sets out to explore, accompanied at a discreet distance by two KGB officers. He is quick to make friends with the artsy French bourgeoisie, including Adèle Exarchopoulos’ dreary Clara Saint (their friendship seemingly based on a shared love of complaining and wistful looks) and starts to enjoy Western life, inevitably provoking the ire of his Russian handlers. Though the fact of his defection has the potential to turn this into a political thriller, any tension from this situation is only borne out in the final half-hour––though the finale is genuinely exciting.
Scattered throughout this narrative are flashbacks to Nureyev’s early life in Siberia as well as his late teens as a determined, hot-headed student in St Petersburg, his ballet master Alexander Pushkin played with stoic elegance by Fiennes himself (in Russian, no less). Each era possesses its own visual style such as the bleak Siberian scenes shot in near monochrome and Paris subdued like a faded Polaroid. Silence is used to great effect in this film, allowing every thud, breath and grimace of rehearsal to become amplified. With grandiose themes such as evolution and transcendence being explored here, the pared-back soundtrack demonstrates the film’s dedication to a more realistic account of the discipline and physical torment of excellence in the world of ballet.
Fiennes’ understated approach is again evident in his casting choice for Nureyev. To cast such an iconoclastic dancer must surely pose a challenge: do you look for an actor capable of portraying Rudi’s mercurial temper but an average dancer, or do you cast a dancer capable of imitating his mastery but who has never acted? Fiennes opted for the latter, and though Ukranian-born dancer Oleg Ivenko’s spoken performance lacks nuance, his physical performance and presence definitely compensates. He shares Nureyev’s intensity––the arrogance and petulance contained within his furrowed eyebrows and pout is astounding––though does not match his charm. His ability as a dancer is perhaps underused in the surprisingly few performance scenes, though his natural grace fits perfectly with the film’s unobtrusive grabs at authenticity.
The ‘artistic process’ is very difficult to render onscreen and The White Crow does not quite manage to avoid falling into cliché with Nureyev’s desire for creative freedom. The relationship between art and politics in the Eastern Bloc, as well as the nature of creativity, is more intelligently explored in the recent German film Never Look Away (not a biopic per se, but loosely based on the life of painter Gerhard Richter). However, The White Crow is still an attractive and enjoyable introduction to the life of an iconic dancer.
The White Crow is in cinemas now!