Rated M, 2 hrs 7 mins
Dendy Canberra Centre and Palace Electric New Acton
Review © Jane Freebury
Before the great Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West in June 1961 and became a household name, he had one or two decisions to make. He was challenging convention with a new approach to male roles on the ballet stage but behind the scenes he was working out his sexual preferences, and whether he preferred a life of freedom in the West to constraint behind the Iron Curtain.
Actor and director Ralph Fiennes has taken on this fascinating time in Nureyev’s life, handling it all with intelligence and restraint. The screenplay for White Crow is by the great English screenwriter David Hare whose writing was behind unforgettable films such as Wetherby, Damage and The Hours.
Construction on the Berlin Wall would soon begin and to some extent East-West relations were still in the balance, when Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) was visiting the West as a member of the Kirov Ballet. Depicted as more outgoing and incautious than the rest, Nureyev formed friendships with other dancers and an enigmatic young widow Clara Saint, played by Adele Exarchopolous, (in such contrast to her role in Blue is the Warmest Colour) with whom he might have had an affair had she been more forward or he more inclined to women. Their finely balanced relationship is ultimately critical in Nureyev’s escape from his Russian minders.
Fiennes would have been the first to admit he didn’t know the first thing about ballet. Expertise was brought in to advise him, but Fiennes is clearly more interested in the man’s character than the fiery flamboyance Nureyev deployed while wearing tights. It was something about Nureyev’s ‘ferocious sense of destiny’ that interested him, he has said.
The outsider perspective builds a broader platform for White Crow than specialist interest. Most of the dance sequences actually take place during classes or rehearsals, when temperament isn’t held so much in check.
With chiselled jaw, full lips and imperious manner, dancer Ivenko looks the part, even if he is not, I’ve read, as similar in style to Nureyev as other dancers cast here, like Sergei Polunin, who has a lesser role here. The casting choice also suggests Fiennes was more interested in Ivenko’s ability to portray personality rather than his dance performance.
Fiennes has put himself in the frame, speaking Russian too. Not one to make life easy for himself, he plays Nureyev’s teacher, Pushkin, who offers the young man a bed at his home while recuperating from an injury. Pushkin’s wife Xenia (Chulpan Kamatova) instigates an affair with the charismatic young man.
Contentious roles have seemed a magnet for Fiennes as an actor, which makes him often interesting to watch. His directorial debut with Coriolanus, based on the Shakespeare play set in ancient Rome, when a principled general felt compelled to commit treason, was another fascinating tale of transgression and betrayal at high level.
Aspects of Nureyev’s character are fleshed out with beautiful moody flashbacks in near-monochrome from his impoverished upbringing in Siberia, but I was still left wondering what was really going on behind the strong features and imperious stance. The White Crow is interesting and impeccably made, but for this viewer, the gestures towards Nureyev’s famous future don’t provide enough to show why he was so thrilling and fascinating a figure after his defection.
Still, it’s good to see how The White Crow taking back some of the ground lost for ballet by Darren Aronofsky’s hysterical Black Swan with Natalie Portman that won many accolades in 2010. In Fiennes’ new film, Russian tempestuousness and flamboyance meet British reserve with finely honed results.
Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM MHz 92.7