Review: The White Crow (2018/19)


More graceful than the average crow: BBC Films/Magnolia Mae Films

I may have been taken along to the odd ballet by my parents over the years, but I can’t claim to know anything much about it as an art form. I certainly hadn’t heard of Rudolf Nureyev, who I’ve been told was the male ballet dancer of the 60s and 70s. In his latest interesting choice of projects to direct, Ralph Fiennes has produced something that is eye-catching but strangely uninspiring.

In 1961, after refusing to return to the Soviet Union for fear of imprisonment, ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) handed himself in at a French airport and claimed political asylum in the West. This is the story of Nureyev’s burgeoning career and insatiable ambition up to the day of his defection.

Fiennes is a decent filmmaker but here the film editing is all over the shop. Plenty of decades-spanning biopics have worked really well, no matter how many times they zip back and forward. This is one of those rare occasions where a straight chronological telling of a story might have been more compelling. The film lacks a solid anchor to keep you focussed on what matters and the flashbacks and forwards, which have no real rhythm or purpose behind them, just ending up frustrating you at having to concentrate too hard on a story which, as told, isn’t all that interesting.

How could the story of such a passionate, determined and important dance talent defecting at the height of the Cold War not be gripping? Well, for a start the dance sequences, while sharply executed, don’t make the most of the medium they are being presented in, feeling like what they are: dancers being filmed with nothing extra to make the experience filmic. About the only occasion when you think The White Crow’s story being told on film reaches its full potential is when Nureyev takes in a beautiful panorama of Paris from atop a roof.

The defection storyline only gains traction in the last ten minutes, by which point it’s too late. The actors, chiefly Ivenko and Adèle Exarchopoulos as Ivenko’s Paris socialite friend Clara, do their best with the material but it’s not written in a way to make you care particularly strongly. Relationships are established, dropped and picked up again on a whim, and this is compacted by the time-skips.

Nureyev’s sexuality isn’t dwelled upon to any great length. We see him naked in bed with a man, presumably post-coital (a side note: I think it’s the first example I’ve seen of the British Board of Film Classification’s “non-sexualised nudity” in a 12A film) but he has a range of different relationships with women too. You’d have thought there’d be more drama to be derived from this aspect of his life – Nureyev’s Soviet minders only seem to object to how their prize dance troupe might make Mother Russia look by partying extravagantly in public. There’s no mention of the fact that Nureyev’s nightly dalliances in Paris were to gay bars, behaviour I’m sure would be punished particularly harshly in the 1960s.

The political aspect of the film works better than the emotional, which isn’t really saying much. I’d imagine dance companies are insular and competitive at the best of times, but in a world fueled by paranoia, where information is power and any wrong foot could lead to destruction, Soviet dance companies must have been on another level. While the constant threat of political imprisonment hanging over Nureyev (represented by bulky minders lurking in the background of every shot) is effective enough, this only seems in response to his hard-partying behaviour. Until the film’s final stretch he doesn’t really feel all that oppressed.

White Crow has good intentions and a certain level of craft to convincingly recreate the period, but for a variety of reason it leaves you cold. Maybe Rudolf Nureyev’s fascinating story would be better served in the form of a documentary, or a feature film that takes a few more risks. SSP


About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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