It cannot have been easy choosing the actor to play Rudolph Nureyev, one of the greatest male ballet dancers of all time. If the best actor is chosen, then the highly impressive dancing scenes lose their authenticity, but if the best dancer is chosen, the acting might fall flat. Ralph Fiennes, directing his third film, leaned into dancing ability when casting Oleg Ivenko to play the distinctive Russian dancer. Fortunately, despite The White Crow being Ivenko’s first ever acting job, he nails both the intricate dancing scenes and the delicate emotions Nureyev struggled with.
The film is staged in three separate eras, inter-cutting through a non-linear narrative. Fiennes shows us Nureyev as a child in the Soviet Union, as a teenager at a prestigious dance school in Moscow, and in Paris with his dance troupe touring Europe. As is often the case with films showing us elements of a person over time, the scenes of Nureyev as a child are the least effective. His childhood gives us an insight into his cruel, isolating behaviour as an adult, but what is most interesting about Nureyev is his behaviour, not why he behaves that way.
His time at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet is more useful at giving us insight into Nureyev’s psyche. Owing to the disruption of World War II, he was only allowed to join a ballet school of Vaganova’s ilk at the age of 17. This put his development far behind younger students, and Nureyev would often stay late practising, just to keep on track. This Nureyev, whilst arrogant, petulant and single-minded is different to the one we see a few years later, lauded as the best male ballet dancer in the Soviet Union, and soon to be the best in the world. The teenage Nureyev is a talented dancer, but volatile and sensitive, needing encouragement from a teacher, not strictness.
After he falls out with his first teacher, Nureyev switches to Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin’s (Ralph Fiennes) class, where his light touch and caring attitude allows him to thrive. Pushkin pushes Nureyev to not get bogged down in the technicalities of dance, but to express himself and to tell a story with his piece. Nureyev is not the best dancer technically, but he knows how to create emotion, and regularly moves people with his performances. After breaking his leg, Pushkin’s wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) invites Nureyev to stay, where he becomes a surrogate son to them both and something more to Xenia. Nureyev also has a relationship with a male dancer from Germany, who teaches him English, which without he would have struggled on his European tour.
It is clear from the start that Nureyev’s arrogance is causing him problems, with his every move being watched by KGB officers whilst in Paris. Purposefully breaking Soviet Union rules for the trip, he befriends French dancers and strikes up a close friendship with Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos), who has ties to powerful people in the French media. Nureyev is eager to learn about European culture, feeling an incredibly strong emotional bond with paintings like, The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. Every day he studies a new painting at the Louvre and as the film goes along it is clear Nureyev wants to study and enjoy culture all around the world. however, art means more than this to him, and he insists that all art needs to evoke complex emotions and tell a story. This is his philosophy with ballet and he lives it every time he is on stage. Travelling Europe would not work whilst being a prominent and prized citizen of the Soviet Union, and late on Nureyev faces the decision to stay a citizen of the country he calls home, or start again with the freedom to show the world his vision for ballet.
The political elements of the film lean heavily on painting the Soviet Union as villains, and the French as nurturing and kind. This hero/villain characterization is a disappointing part of an otherwise nuanced portrait of a complicated man. However, the last twenty minutes, where Nureyev decides his citizenship is based on truth, and the KGB’s lies and manipulations add the extra desire for Nureyev to defect.
The White Crow is ultimately a well-acted study of a complicated man destined for greatness. Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare make no excuses for Nureyev’s childish outbursts, but it is impossible not to root for him to achieve his dream of breaking artistic and personal limitations to dancing freely.