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Film Review: The White Crow

26 March 19 words: Hilary Whiteside

The third film from the directorial career of Ralph Fiennes tells the story of Russian ballet icon Rudolph Nureyev and his defection to the West... 

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Starring: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Louis Hofmann

Running time: 127 mins

The White Crow charts the life of 1960s ballet icon Rudolph Nureyev from his childhood through to his defection to the West. It is a richly presented film, darting from one sumptuous location to another, presenting an intellectual and cultural side of Nureyev’s life perhaps previously unconsidered. Director Ralph Fiennes was initially drawn to the story of Nureyev after reading Julie Kavanaugh’s biography, which has been adapted by herself and David Hare and forms the narrative base of the film. Fiennes deals sympathetically with Nureyev’s plight; his feelings of entrapment within the confines of Russia at the time are balanced against the excruciating dilemma Nureyev faced with being disloyal to his country, its culture and his family. Nureyev did not step on Russian soil again until the 1980s when he was granted entry in order to see his dying mother. His sacrifice was profound.  

Fiennes chooses to use the Russian language in the film, interspersed with smatterings of English and French. This certainly enhances the overall flavour, adding authenticity and integrity; it becomes a Russian film, which was Fiennes intent. In using a predominantly English, the nature of the film would have entirely changed. Of course, many of the main characters are, themselves, Russian and, with no language barrier, segue effortlessly into their roles. Fiennes’ command of the Russian language is extraordinary. He appears to have mastered its delivery and fluency with magnificent aplomb and is thus entirely convincing as a Russian ballet teacher.

Fiennes casting choices centred on ballet rather than acting experience. Ivenko (Nureyev), a Lithuanian dancer with no previous acting experience, received a crash course in acting skills doubtlessly tutored and honed by Fiennes.Not only did Ivenko have to rise to this challenge, he also was required to command enough English language to meet the demands of the latter parts of the film.However, Fiennes' guidance and commitment to Russian authenticity and a true representation of ballet has resulted in an impressive performance by the young actor. Polunin, perhaps the more obvious choice for the main role considering his balletic fame and, albeit moderate, acting experience, is side lined to the role of Nureyev’s friend. We are treated to glimpses of his dancing prowess but, less flattering images of him grinning inanely from a bus, his dyed blonde hair (why?) coupled with unnecessary shots his toned butt do not serve to enhance his image.

Fiennes is kind to Nureyev’s image. There are only hints at the petulant, demanding arrogant Nureyev who hit the press in later years.

Another memorable role is provided by Chulpan Khamatova (Xenia, Pushkin’s wife) in her coaching of Nureyev’s sexual awaking. Her disloyalty to Pushkin invites some moving shots of Pushkin’s face, his disbelief and overriding sadness. Adele Exarchopoulos (Clara Saint) is the lively, attractive enabler of Nureyev’s defection and acts as a ‘sort of girlfriend’ for Nureyev.  Of course, Fiennes’ Pushkin centres the narrative of the film. He is shown to be Nureyev’s mentor, creator and teacher and, at the end of the film, his naivety is exposed; he is incredulous at Nureyev’s defection, clearly unaware of his pupil’s desire to escape the cultural limitations of Russia in the 1960s.

The set is sumptuous and the camera swings back and forth between the cultural icons of St. Petersburg and Paris. The audience is treated to visits to the Louvre with Nureyev as he desperately tries to absorb art and culture within the restricted time he is afforded in Paris. The lavish theatres in both Russia and Paris are used as back drops to the ballet interludes to which we are treated. Here colours of privilege, gold and red, predominate. In stark contrast, Nureyev’s childhood scenes are filmed using drab blues and greys. The persistence of snow implies the coldness and harshness of Nureyev’s early life and his family’s abject poverty. Fiennes suggests his peasant links through the use of simple, traditional songs which resonate against the finesse and culture of music written for the ballet which became a part of Nureyev’s life. These contracts clearly highlight Nureyev’s dilemma of choice. It also informs us of the influences and significance his background. Rather charmingly, at his first ballet audition, he is shown performing traditional Russian dances.

The chronology of the film is interesting and initially requires concentration. The focus is the present which takes place at Le Bourget airport as Nureyev prepares to defect. We are then swept back into his past where Fiennes builds a picture of Nureyev’s family and his ballet career providing some historical insight and understanding of Nureyev’s background and its links to unfolding events at Le Bourget.

Fiennes is kind to Nureyev’s image. There are only hints at the petulant, demanding arrogant Nureyev who hit the press in later years. His homosexuality too is largely ignored although in fairness, one has to question whether this bears any significance to this early story.

It’s a fascinating film.  Historically we are reminded of the dislocation between Russia and the west in the Cold War and also the choking restraints placed upon Russian citizens inside and outside their country (confiscation of passports and minders ever present for the dancers). The locations are beautiful and the ballet is, of course, very good. I loved it, but then again, I love ballet.

Did you know? As a result of his work on this film, Serbia granted full citizenship to Ralph Fiennes.

The White Crow is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 28 March