The 1961 defection of Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev in Paris sent shockwaves through the artistic and political worlds—both East and West. The USSR was embarrassed that such a prominent figure slipped through its grasp, while the rest of the world now had the privilege of witnessing the raw, unencumbered, uncensored talents of one world’s greatest performers at his peak. Nureyev would go on to influence ballet for generations to come with his combination of technical perfection, physical strength, and emotion—but it all might have fallen apart had he boarded that return flight to Moscow.
The White Crow follows Nureyev on the path to defection, from childhood to the moment itself. Director Ralph Fiennes and actor Oleg Ivenko create a character who thrives on discipline but rejects authority. He craves perfection in his art and the recognition of his teachers and peers, but loses patience when he perceives them to be obstacles blocking the path to his destiny, whether that is the reality or not.
Ivenko’s Nureyev is distinct from the tiresome tropes of troubled geniuses held back by society in that he loves the world and connecting with people. He is arrogant and prone to outbursts, but he is also correct: He has a gift that will be celebrated, but who he is and what he can contribute are stifled by those who fear what is different.
The film follows Nureyev through several stages of his life: from his birth on a train in Siberia to his early years at the prestigious Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg under Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes) and his first trip abroad with the Kirov Ballet. In Paris he mingles with dancers and socialites, to the chagrin of his KGB handlers, and finds a society welcoming of his talents and sexuality, as he explores relationships with men and women. Special attention is paid to his friendships with heiress Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and dancer Pierre Lacotte (Raphaël Personnaz).
Fiennes’ direction is narratively lean and technically methodical, putting a premium on character development. (Of note is that characters always speak in the correct language. The Russians speak Russian to one another, the French speak French, and English is only ever used as a lingua franca between the two.) There are no twists, except for the one we already know is coming.
The White Crow is very much a film directed by an actor focusing on performances, with the advantages and drawbacks that come with them. When depicting a master like Nureyev, the dancing is a crucial part of the character’s identity, and Ivenko’s movements are a marvel to watch. Ballet is a graceful art, but its execution is a physically grueling process that’s mentally and emotionally taxing. Fiennes gives Ivenko the room to inhabit the character on and off stage, lingering where most films might truncate. The downside is that when Nureyev does have an outburst or other big emotional moment, it plays essentially no role in the narrative that follows. This may be an accurate representation of his personality in that regard, but it can be distracting from the film’s strengths.
“The White Crow” was Nureyev’s childhood nickname, meaning he stands out. This was certainly true; he was an unmistakable character and a timeless talent. The White Crow is a simmering character study with a jarring yet tonal shift toward political thriller. It shows what it was like to walk in the shoes of someone who hasn’t found his place in the world, but does not look for deeper meaning, either political or symbolic, in the journey. Whether this is a strength or a weakness will depend on the viewer’s point of view.
The White Crow / R, 127 minutes / Violet Crown Cinema (Opens May 31)
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville z Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213, regmovies.com z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Check theater websites for listings.
See it again
Saving Private Ryan / PG, 180 minutes / Regal Stonefield and IMAX / June 2