Early in The White Crow, I started to worry that it was the type of movie that wouldn’t let you see dancers in motion until halfway through the third reel. Happily, that’s not the case. As the story of Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev in 1960s Paris gets underway, the dancers deliver. Practice and performance alike are shot simply and breathtakingly. The movie is a joy until it turns out my concern was exactly backwards. There’s not much dance after the third reel.
To be fair, the movie’s less about dance than it is about Nureyev’s desire to dance. But at the end, you want to see the fulfillment of that desire more clearly. Oleg Ivenko, who has no acting credits other than Crow, has a grasping desire in his every movement. He’s the rare case of a performer who actually moves in the way the scripted dialogue describes. When characters talk about the fierceness and energy of his singular talent, we know. We’ve already seen it.
Credit has to go to director Ralph Fiennes, who I last saw as Moriarty in Holmes and Watson, a movie that you might politely call undignified. As a director, Fiennes has kept it relatively highbrow, previously helming a Dickens biopic and the Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus. The White Crow is similarly styled for a ‘ballet and art history’ demographic. But like Coriolanus, which offered a muscly Gerard Butler alongside its Shakespearean verse, The White Crow meets the mainstream halfway. The dance is exhilarating, the actors attractive, and the cinematography light and pretty. Fiennes’ work here would be impressive enough without mentioning that he also co-stars in a (convincing!) Russian-language role as Nureyev’s trainer.
Ivenko, for his part, is a better dancer than an actor (though it’s worth noting here that he’s a dancer in his first film role). But he has a raw talent that fits the stormy Nureyev. It’s not a consistent performance, except that it’s always a passionate one. White Crow’s script gives us a fairly straightforward sketch of historical events, beginning with Nureyev’s early days in Paris and ending with his defection from the Soviet Union at Le Bourget Airport. In between, Nureyev experiments with various types of freedom, testing the support of his instructors, fellow dancers, and Soviet handlers. Nureyev is sometimes vulnerable, sometimes raging, sometimes bitterly cold. Ivenko handles these different moods by throwing himself headlong into each one. In the end, we’re not sure that we know the man at all. But he’s never boring.
Still, the movie meanders a bit on its way to the climax. White Crow’s first half feels tightly focused on the way Nureyev’s bristly individualism grows and changes in the new environment of Paris. There’s a momentum to Nureyev’s discovery of new art, his changes as a dancer, his romances and friendships. But when the movie opens up to the larger Cold War context, it might not quite stick the landing. The point, though, is that Nureyev can. And watching him move the way he does might well be worth the movie’s flaws.