Ballet only has meaning if there is story to connect the movements: That's the gist of what Ralph Fiennes, as Russian dance instructor Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin, tells the young Rudolf Nureyev. It's a little unfortunate that Fiennes the director did not take his own character's advice for The White Crow, a fragmented retelling of Nureyev's career from arriving at Leningrad's prestigious Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet to his defection to the West in 1961.
Fiennes' version of the story is told primarily through flashbacks around the Kirov ballet company's pivotal Paris trip. It's a minor miracle that the furious and brilliant Nureyev could dance, so many chips does he balance on his shoulders: too old, too undisciplined, too mercurial, too cruel, burning through friends and mentors, and brazenly unapologetic. This is supposed to be communicated through glimpses of his youth (shown in such desaturation that it could pass as black and white) through his education and multiple, often seemingly simultaneous affairs. It's a bold presentation – matched by the decision to have most of the dialogue in subtitled Russian and French, with English serving as (pardon the pun) the lingua franca of the international community. However, bold does not always equate to elegant success. The events flip back and forth with little rhyme, reason, or true connective tissue, only finally crystalizing when Fiennes abandons this unengaging staccato cadence in favor of a more conventional tick-tock structure for the nerve-jangling showdown in Paris-Le Bourget Airport.
What holds the film together before that nerve-jangling sequence is Ivenko as the young genius. A ballet dancer of great repute himself, his creation of Nureyev is seamless and assured: a belligerent man-child, touched by genius, enchanted by art in all forms, and driven by a fear that he will never be more than the clumsy peasant folk dancer, born on a train. His Nureyev is a maelstrom of wide-eyed wonder and mean-spirited self-possession, haughty and charismatic. He can even overcome the complete lack of energy between himself and Blue Is the Warmest Color's Exarchopoulos: Woefully miscast as Clara Saint, the woman who gave Nureyev the final push toward defection, her sole character beat stems from a line about her being on Valium when she first meets the dancer, the drug prescribed after the death of her politically connected fiancé in a car crash.
Every biopic takes liberties, but the decision to have Vincent Malraux's death – a pivotal offscreen event – take place before Nureyev and Saint meet, rather than weeks after, is just one of many that screenwriter David Hare makes that further render the people that surround Nureyev into bit players. They are set dressing to his admirable solo. The only one that comes close to matching Ivenko's scathing performance (and surpasses Fiennes' failure to capture anything else) is Aleksey Morozov as Strizhevsky, the saggy-suited handler – presumably KGB – assigned to keep the performers from mingling with Western hedonists and the bourgeois running dogs of capitalism. His losing battle with Nureyev's spirit and ego adds more nuance than any plié.
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