Ralph Fiennes’ third film as a director is his most ambitious to date. After Shakespearean update Coriolanus and Charles Dickens love story The Invisible Woman, The White Crow explores more recent history — ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the West
in 1961 — yet mixes it up in a crosscutting of timelines, life decisions, visual textures and hair lengths. It’s a courageous approach that showcases a host of interesting scenes but never gels into a coherent, satisfying whole. By the time the film straightens itself out into a compelling last 20 minutes, you can’t help thinking that simpler might have been better.
So, rather than do a soup-to-nuts hagiography, Fiennes and writer David Hare try to interweave three different strands of the dancer’s life, each with its own pictorial identity. The major strand, told in a saturated ’60s style, follows Nureyev to Paris, ignoring his superior’s orders and exploring the city, fraternising with French dancers and getting involved with sullen socialite Clara Saint (Blue Is The Warmest Colour’s Adèle Exarchopoulos). Another thread, shot in colder tones, takes us six years earlier where we see the nascent star’s talent and arrogance as he was taken under the wing of Alexander Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes), ballet master of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet — Nureyev is even invited to move in with Pushkin and his wife (Chulpan Khamatova), who engages the student in a different pas de deux. Finally, we get intermittent glimpses of his childhood, lensed in monochrome as he is born on a train and shows some of the headstrong, loner wilfulness that shaped his greatness as a dancer.
It’s a bold, tricksy structure but it is difficult to see what it adds to the drama, never really intersecting different time periods in telling ways and often hindering the momentum, especially in Paris. It’s all the more frustrating as when the film moves into the final stretch — the nuts and bolts of Nureyev seeking asylum and the actual switch at Paris’ Le Bourget airport — it finds the tension of a great ’70s political thriller. Fiennes may leave the reasons for his escape diffuse but the switch itself is gripping.
If Ivenko is missing some of Nureyev’s flamboyance, he does better with his haughtiness. A renowned soloist in his own right, Ivenko adds credibility and dynamism to the dance scenes, his abilities allowing Fiennes to go full Red Shoes with the camera and not cutaway to doubles (Black Swan) or digital fakery (Red Sparrow). Fiennes as Pushkin is perfectly understated, delivering his entire role in Russian, but the weakest link is Exarchopoulos, who gives a withdrawn, somnambulant performance as the woman who helps Nureyev defect. Their relationship leaves a hole where there should be a beating heart and doesn’t do much to shine a light on Nureyev. For all the different angles on show, The White Crow leaves arguably ballet’s greatest male dancer frustratingly opaque.