The White Crow : Ralph Fiennes brings poise to ballet biopic | Sunday Observer

The White Crow : Ralph Fiennes brings poise to ballet biopic

This retelling of Rudolf Nureyev’s escape to the west survives some flat acting thanks to David Hare’s nuanced script

The White Crow is a watchable, serviceable movie telling the story of ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev and his sensational escape to the west in the early 60s at the age of 23, while on his first European tour. Dance is represented as a transcendental experience of success, of leaving behind the past and reinventing the future. Like Billy Elliot’s defection from his working-class childhood, Nureyev’s flight involves crises of loyalty with family and community. These struggles are, however, a little enigmatic and opaque with Rudolf, as portrayed by the Ukrainian ballet star and first-time actor Oleg Ivenko. Ralph Fiennes directs and gives a performance of spaniel-eyed sadness as Nureyev’s dance teacher and mentor Alexander Pushkin, with whose wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), Nureyev is to have a sentimental education.

David Hare adapts Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Nureyev, skilfully sketching in his past life via flashbacks of childhood and early manhood as a tempestuous young student in Leningrad. The present-tense action takes place in Paris, as Nureyev and the west thrill each other to the bone. Nureyev finds a well-connected Parisian ally in Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whom the film promotes almost to quasi-girlfriend status, while representing Nureyev’s gay identity pretty obliquely compared with his straight experiences with Xenia. Finally at the airport, Nureyev realises it’s now or never. He has to defect.

What should be a nailbiting climax is a bit subdued due to Ivenko’s intelligent but at times passionless performance.

Casting a seasoned actor would have meant a long-shot body double for dance scenes, and there’s an argument for keeping dance scenes out of it entirely. As it stands, Ivenko – though perfectly plausible – is often playing opposite Sergei Polunin as Nureyev’s Kirov colleague Yuri Soloviev; though arguably no better at acting than Ivenko, Polunin – a real-life dancer – radiates far more Nureyevian charisma and sexy arrogance.

Hare cleverly suggests Nureyev’s mixture of courage, hauteur, emotional damage and cool self-appraisal; the Soviet authorities cannot threaten him through his family because he long ago left them behind. An athletic, confident, undemanding film.

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