The White Crow, Ralph Fiennes’s ambitious biopic of ballet legend and political dissident Rudolf Nureyev, opens with a title card describing its titular Russian idiom as someone who is “unusual, extraordinary [and] not like others.” The famed dancer, remembered just as much for his craft as for his defection to the West from the Soviet Union in the early 60s, spent his life as a perpetual outsider, allowing his rebellious, unrefined manner to shatter society’s expectations of a ballet poster child. Much like its subject, Fiennes’s third directorial outing makes up much of what it lacks in precision with spirited tenacity, but it struggles to find steady footing.
Nureyev’s life was filled to the brim with stories prime for a cinematic adaptation, but The White Crow spends nearly all of its energy chronicling his life-altering visit to Paris in 1961. While on tour with the Kirov Ballet in France, Nureyev (portrayed here by Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko) becomes engrossed in the art, the culture, the absence of an oppressive regiment. As connections with animated French freethinkers ignite within him the already boiling discontent with the Soviet way of life, he decides to seek political asylum in the West.
The White Crow is essentially an inquisitive character piece that can’t seem to make up its mind about how it views its central player. In an attempt to stir up the complexities of Nureyev’s psyche, he’s often painted as somewhat boorish and narcissistic, however David Nare’s overeager script doesn’t do nearly enough to remind us of why we should be rooting for him. He has deeply ingrained insecurities from a poverty-stricken upbringing marked by failing to secure his parents’ love, and so we are to be understanding when he barks at budding love interest Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos, of Blue is the Warmest Color). It’s all part of the charm of artistic genius, right? Before long, it becomes increasingly unclear as to where or not we’re actually supposed to sympathize with Nureyev at all.
The well-meaning tale takes for granted that we, as red-blooded Western capitalists, will cheer him on simply because we long to see the Soviets take a loss. Although we are repeatedly told that he is a phenomenal performer (and occasionally shown as much), the film is much more concerned with his abrupt political transformation than his prolific ballet career. However, its ideological debate amounts to little more than ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys,’ without much in the way of genuine analysis of the motivations behind each of the opposing worldviews.
Where Fiennes truly succeeds is in simply being swept up in awe of the beauty and elegance of his pristine period setting. The White Crow is obsessed with aesthetic beauty and, through the aid of its flared score and deliberate cinematography, it is able to showcase the supreme luxury in the immense physicality of the absorbing dance sequences, the timeless radiance of Paris streets, and a breathtaking trip to the Louvre to bask in the glory of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. Like Nureyev, Fiennes studies the subtle beauty of his set pieces, picking apart even seemingly innocuous details. Obsessed with unshaken realism, the film opts for grainy 16mm footage with quick zooms, as if we are being shown footage from a lost newsreel.
With its sweeping visuals and tortured protagonist, The White Crow is a difficult film to hate, but it’s even more difficult to love. When all is said and done, its gravest sin is monotony. Even when relying on a nonlinear narrative and beginning to tackle combative political turmoil, The White Crow has an unshakeable paint-by-numbers quality. We are repeatedly told that our hero is turbulent and groundbreaking, but the film attempting to tell the hero’s life’s story shies away from taking any tangible risks.