In 1961, Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union, escaping from Russian security thugs at the Paris-Le Bourget airport.
“The White Crow” is the story of the defection -- and the first 23 years of the life of the dancer, from his birth on a train, his boyhood as the son of rural peasants, his training in Leningrad and his joining the Kirov and the trip to Paris.
But director Ralph Fiennes well-drawn period picture isn’t a straight-up narrative biopic. Rather David Hare’s script cuts back and forth between periods in Nureyev’s life, creating an impressionistic view of the artist as a young man and of his headstrong development of his art.
Nureyev is played by Ukranian dancer Oleg Ivenko, who, while not a trained actor, holds his own against the rest of the talented cast, including Fiennes, who plays another Russian ballet legend, the soft-spoken master teacher Alexander Pushkin.
What Ivenko does that no actor could do is dance. It takes literally a lifetime of study and continuous practice to reach the top level of ballet, something no actor could manage in a few months.
So the ballet scenes, whether in the studio or on the stages of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Paris, ring beautifully true. While the ballet isn’t the picture’s point, it is better captured here than in any other fictional film I can remember.
The movie’s kaleidoscopic nature creates sub themes and stories:
Little Rudi’s isolated upbringing with a handful of sisters and his soldier father away fighting the Germans in World War II, which is shot in monochrome;
His struggles to catch up with other dancers when he was finally admitted to ballet school in Leningrad a late teen, leaving years behind his contemporaries but more than their equals in talent;
He's seen sleeping with men, including fellow star dancer Yuri Soloview (played by Ukranian ballet star Sergei Polunin) and carries on an affair with Pushkin’s wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova).
His determined individuality, a headstrong rebelliousness that puts him at odds with instructors his Soviet controllers and even some of his fellow dancers as he was going to his thing, his way, rules be damned.
“The White Crow” is also something of a thriller, particularly in its final 30 minutes when the defection takes place. Even though we know that he will stay in Paris, those scenes are beyond tense, carried by some fine acting from Ivenko, who the camera loves, and Adele Exarchopoulos, who plays Clara Saint, a young well-connected Parisian woman who becomes Nureyev’s lifelong friend and savior.
Fiennes spins the sections and stories together with a quiet mastery, subtly exploring the themes while keeping the focus on Nureyev to the point where the film almost feels like a character study.
Told in Russian, English and French -- with Ivenko speaking Russian and heavily accented English and Fiennes speaking only Russian -- “The White Crow” is, by definition, sophisticated, cosmopolitan and international -- such is the nature of world-class ballet.
But it, like Nureyev is largely apolitical. He wasn’t rebelling against the Soviet Union per se, just the rules that bound him to traditional behavior, presentation and fealty to the system that came to threaten his life.
And, if you go to see “The White Crow,” stay for the credits. They create a perfect ending, rolling over a black-and-white film of the real Nureyev dancing solo.