New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: The White Crow

Actor Ralph Fiennes directs this tense cold war thriller about intense ballet star Rudolf Nureyev and his controversial defection from The Soviet Union in 1961. Fiennes plucked a dancer who looks like Nureyev for the role, but Ukrainian ballet star Oleg Ivenko never acted before and it shows. Graceful when he dances, Ivenko is a little stiff acting in what should have been a more emotional drama. Yes, Russians are stereotyped as being cold, harsh and unemotional, but he could have projected more fear, especially at the very climactic end.

Ralph Fiennes was given 5 chapters of the biography of Nureyev by Julie Kavanagh 20 years ago. It took that long to bring it to the screen. He didn’t want to direct himself for the third time, but was pressured by the movie’s investors to get a big name, like himself, in the cast. Fortunately, Fiennes speaks passable Russian. He speaks no English in the film.    

The structure of this film is very confusing with flashbacks showing Nureyev’s mother’s struggle. She gave up custody of the boy to the State’s dance academy. He  was ordered to devote every minute to the art. His father was a stern, military man who was intimidating, but never a big part of his life.

Nureyev’s mother started his training in very stark and meager surroundings which he never forgot while Dad was off fighting with the Russian army. Nureyev was determined and found his talent, along with a big ego. Director Fiennes shows the primo divo’s rebellious and competitive nature, but also his ability to leap higher than anyone before him and still be as graceful as any ballerina. His extension was perfection.

Nureyev thought the female leads got all the attention and that it was time for males to make leaps and bounds that were more than just an entrance.The White Crow of the title refers directly to Nureyev. It’s a Russian term for someone “unusual, extraordinary, not like others, an outsider.”

Nureyev is not very demonstrative of the criticism, rejection and jealously he faced. Competition can be fierce with dance companies.  He was determined to make a name for himself instead of just taking the role of making the prima ballerina look good. Fiennes shoots scenes showing anger when Nureyev is criticized or reprimanded, but his insolence is not very convincing. 

Fiennes plays pathetically weak, too, as dance teacher and mentor Alexander Pushkin, with whose wife Xenia ((Chulpan Khamatova), takes pity on him, even taking Nureyev into their home. Pushkin sees that his charge still needs to be educated. His wife sees the same, but she also sees a virile young man with the ability to satisfy her sexual needs. A very unconvincing scene is in the Pushkin’s apartment when Xenia begins touching Nureyev awkwardly, telling him matter-of-factly, this was bound to happen. Nureyev submits, even though it’s evident he prefers the intimate company of men. 

Much of the story takes place in Leningrad until Nureyev has become famous. He is to dance the lead on a European tour which begins in Paris. This is where he experiences artist-as-celebrity and he’s intoxicated by the attention.  

Adèle Exarchopoulos gives a stellar performance, not as a dancer, but as a well-connected, rich, savvy female with an interest in the arts. She is, at first, a potential romantic interest, who becomes Nureyev’s best friend. Fiennes does well showing how they really do care and take care of each other even though they frequently disagree.

Exarchopoulos’s gives the impression of being very aloof but shows just the right amount of expression to make her character interesting. She is exceptional. Her acting means the most when Nureyev has to make a decision whether he wants to break free of the restrictive life in a Soviet controlled ballet company. He is 23 and performing on a European tour.

Clara is the broker for his defection which is challenged with each move. It’s like a chess game. Exarchopoulos holds back just enough to create maximum tension. She’s very understated adding even more importance to hoping he’s not killed or shipped to Siberia. 

Despite this film being about great leaps, bounds and pirouettes, it plods as if one foot is stuck to the floor until the East-West confrontation at the Paris airport. Since this film has a real talented ballet star as it’s lead, we were hoping for more dance sequences to help break up the slow pace. And more emotion for an incident that was a matter of life or death. 

Sony Pictures Classics            2 hours 7 minutes                    R

from Movies and Shakers

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