The White Crow (Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Adele Exarchopoulos) – Rudolf Nureyev was the finest male ballet dancer of his time. Dancing in his native Soviet Union, he was ticketed to international stardom, a symbol of USSR superiority in the world of ballet during the Cold War. Nureyev was apolitical but he found himself at the epicenter of political intrigue when he defected to France at the airport in Paris in 1961.
His early life is beautifully depicted in The White Crow, director/actor Ralph Fiennes’ most stunning work behind the camera. On camera, he is very impressive, too, as Nureyev’s nurturing teacher, Pushkin. Fiennes spoke fluent Russian in the film.
The film starts with Nureyev’s birth in 1938 on the Trans-Siberian Express and progresses through his early childhood and eventual training as a dancer. Told in flashbacks (often in black-and-white) and flash-forwards, some of which are a bit hard to follow, The White Crow depicts Nureyev as driven, fascinated, determined, bold, fun-loving, immature, supremely talented, and cocky. Even as a child, he was quiet, different, and reflective – a “white crow” as his family called him.
On the first tour of Paris and London since the end of World War II, the Kirov ballet company thrills audiences. When he gets the chance to perform, Nureyev is spellbinding. Paris is a playground of freedom and history for young Rudi, and he makes the most of his time there.
He befriends a young socialite, Clara Saint, who recently lost her fiance in a car accident. She is attracted to Rudy’s talent and sense of wonder. He is attracted to her social circle, her support, and her sense of freedom. The relationship, clearly platonic, needs greater development than Fiennes provides because it serves at the heart of the film. That relationship greatly concerns the KGB officers traveling with the company. They fear that Nureyev is falling under Clara’s spell, tasting too much of freedom and potentially infecting him with a love of the West.
When the company is about to embark on its trip to London, the movie reaches its height of tension. Rudy has pushed his handlers too far and he is told he is to be returned to Moscow.
The Nureyev story is virtually unknown to anyone under 65 or outside the world of ballet. Many of us knew he defected but nothing about the reasons, consequences, or his early life. He became a symbol of Russian oppression and set the stage of other high-profile defections, including Mikhail Baryshnikov 13 years later.
The White Crow is presented with subtitles. Its star, Oleg Ivenko, dances with the Tatar State Academic Opera and Ballet Company in Kazan, Russia (not exactly the Bolshoi), and this is his first film. Fiennes originally targeted Hayden Christenson (Stars Wars I & II, Shattered Glass) to play Nureyev but a chronic ankle injury forced the director to change course. Christenson’s modest star power may have helped The White Crow at the box office but Ivenko’s authenticity and ballet talent carries the film.
The White Crow is really quite an achievement for Fiennes (Liam Neeson is top credited as executive producer) but you will have to look very hard to find it in theaters. If it shows in your town, see it quickly before it leaves.