Film Review – The White Crow (2018)

As a director, Ralph Fiennes has classical tastes. His debut behind the camera was in 2011 with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, followed two years later by The Invisible Woman, based on Charles Dickens’ relationship with his mistress, actress Nelly Ternan. For his latest venture, Fiennes moves into the world of ballet, but also stays in the realm of true events for The White Crow, which traces the early years of dancer Rudolph Nureyev up to and including his claiming political asylum in Paris in 1961, perhaps the highest profile of all the defections to the West during the Cold War.

Fiennes is also in front of the camera again but, instead of playing the lead as in his first two films, he’s opted for the smaller, but no less pivotal, role of Pushkin, Nureyev’s (Oleg Ivenko) dance tutor of choice during his student years. He bookends the narrative, one that criss-crosses through time, showing us how Nureyev was famously born on a train, brought up as a peasant and then studied ballet under Pushkin, joining the world-famous Kirov Ballet to venture outside the USSR to Paris, where he hit the headlines, for both artistic and political reasons.

Instead of choosing a big name to play the legendary dancer, Fiennes takes the courageous step of casting a complete unknown: Ivenko is a dancer, not an actor, with the physical presence and poise for the role, let alone the technical skills. The part, however, demands more: there’s a certain physical resemblance, especially when he’s wearing his stage make-up, and he captures Nureyev’s fiery temperament and personal insecurities with surprising skill. Not just a bold move, but a good one and the director deserves credit for sticking with his choice.

Fiennes has been described by his screenwriter, David Hare, as on a quest for authenticity with this film (read our interview with Hare), and it’s reflected by the majority of the dialogue being in Russian. Yes, some English and French slip in there as well, but the sub-titles are on screen for most of the time, with Fiennes himself also speaking Russian. It’s one of the most successful aspects of the film which, as whole, is on the flabby side – ironic when you consider the lean physique of the its main character. Too much time is spent on his younger years, so that by the time the climax comes along, the pre-amble feels over-stretched and tiring. And that’s to do an injustice to the sections of the film in Paris, with their candy colours and beautiful locations, together with the claustrophobia Nureyev feels at the hands of the minders.

Fiennes has elicited some strong performances from his cast, including himself in one of his most subtle and effecting roles as the portly, middle aged ballet tutor who realises his younger wife is having a physical affair with Nureyev. He bears it with dignity and silence, every gesture, glance and expression shouting out his pain and humiliation. He’s also re-created the early 60s with some skill: over 50 years ago, true, yet feeling simultaneously like a long time ago and yesterday, with its transparently clear parallels.

The white crow of the title is, inevitably, Nureyev himself, a nickname for a misfit, somebody who doesn’t follow convention, one that the dancer acquired at an early age. It suits him perfectly, in terms of his dancing style, his temperament and how he lived his life generally. The film doesn’t go out on a limb to the same extent, but it’s a solid insight into a story that many probably don’t know, as well as being a pertinent reminder of the freedoms that are all too easy to take for granted. This is more than just a ballet bio-pic.

Freda Cooper |

Drama, Biopic, Foreign Language | Cert: 15 | UK, 22 March (2019) | StudioCanal | Dir. Ralph Fiennes | Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Adele Exarchopulous, Chuplan Khamatova.

Read our interview with screenwriter David Hare here.

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