Starring Oleg Ivenko. In English, Russian, and French, with English subtitles. Rated PG
The subject here is Rudolph Nureyev, still the best-known male ballet artist a quarter-century after his death from AIDS–related illness. And it’s an ambitious directing effort by Ralph Fiennes, who also plays the dancer’s most important teacher, Alexander Pushkin—not the great poet, but almost as revered in Russian cultural history.
The filmmaker’s most difficult choice, surely, was in hiring Oleg Ivenko, a Ukrainian dancer with no acting experience and little resemblance to Nureyev, whose feral, sharp-cheekboned visage and theatrical savvy made him the Mick Jagger of the dance world.
The movie centres on Nureyev’s dramatic defection to the West, at a Paris airport in 1961, and its shifting locations require Ivenko to communicate in somewhat halting English. (Fiennes, however, speaks pretty convincing Russian.) Eventually, you warm to the performance, which must sell the soaring stage leaps while conveying the self-contained arrogance needed to survive an environment that lauded technical excellence while condemning overt individualism.
The movie just about pulls that off. The bigger problem is that its script, from veteran adapter David Hare, tries to cram in too much of Nureyev’s earlier life—the impoverished rural childhood, struggles with academia, fascination with paintings, and battles with Soviet apparatchiks—and this takes the rhythm out of a story about an artist devoted to line and form. At just over two hours, the film lacks the crackle its subject deserves, especially when the flashbacks keep going long after the climactic defection occurs.
Rather obscurely titled after a nickname from his scrawny youth, The White Crow tells us less about Rudi’s almost-open orientation than about his long-standing relationships with older women. In particular, while staying with the Pushkins, he sometimes slept with his mentor’s wife.
The beloved teacher died in 1970, and a posthumous portrait in the New York Times included this little fillip: “Pushkin’s wife, Xenia Jurgenson, who was also a former Kirov dancer, would fuss over the young star [Nureyev], bringing him tea and making sure he got enough sleep. Years later, Mr. [Mikhail] Baryshnikov slept on that same couch before his important appearances and was fussed over in the same tender manner.”