A white crow, we are dutifully informed by a screen card at the beginning of Ralph Fiennes film of the same name, is someone who is “unusual, extraordinary, not like others, an outsider.” I’m glad we got that out of the way, since most Westerners are probably unfamiliar with this expression. The presentation of this information also prepares us for the movie to come, which is just about as dutiful and didactic as a film about the greatest male dancer of the twentieth century could be.
The White Crow begins after the main event of the film—the defection of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) to France—with the interrogation of his ballet instructor and mentor Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes, played with a perpetual air of sadness). It then cuts back to the very beginning of Nureyev’s life, his birth on a Siberian train. This is a good indication of what the rest of the film will be like—constant cutting between three eras of Nureyev’s life, in a manner that highlights the cleverness of the screenwriter (David Hare) in a “see what I did there?” manner, but acts against the building of any sort of tension in the plot or audience identification with the characters. The result is a remarkably bloodless movie, as if the coldness of the Siberian winters and the oppression of the Soviet state had sapped the very humanity of the central character. Nureyev’s actual life story, of course, demonstrates the very opposite to be true—he was noted for his passionate performances in the ballet, showing the West what a great male dancer could truly be, and denied himself none of the pleasaures available to him in the West. And that’s the central irony of this film’s failure—while no one who ever saw Nureyev dance could forget him, the Nureyev of this film is easily forgettable.
The White Crow is most engaging in the occasional flashbacks to Nureyev’s impoverished childhood, which present his memories using a palette so desaturated they verge on becoming black and white. It’s an overly obvious device to delineate the shift in time, but then this is an overly obvious movie in many ways. It’s easier to confuse the other two time periods, since the differences in palette are much more subtle and the same characters appear in both. The present time of 1961, leading up to Nureyev’s defection, is presented in full color, while his early years as a late entrant to ballet school in the 1950s, where he proved himself both extremely talented and extremely temperamental, which are presented in subdued tones of brown and gray.
Ivenko, a professional dancer but first time actor, is convincing in terms of physicality and general demeanor, but his acting abilities pale in comparison to the like of Fiennes, Chulpan Khamatova (Pushkin’s wife Xenia), Aleksey Morozov (Nureyev’s Soviet minder) and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Clara Saint, a socialite who befriended Nureyev). Even an outstanding cast can’t rescue Hare’s on-the-nose script, however: lines like “Technique is only a means to an end, story is more important” and “Few people ask, ‘what is it I want to say?'”, gamely delievered by Fiennes to his teenage protégé, don’t just apply to uninspired ballet performances—they also diagnose the core problem with this film, which is technically competent but seems uncertain of what it wants to say about Rudolf Nureyev, or anything else. | Sarah Boslaugh