Whilst The White Crow makes no secret of how electrifying a dancer Rudolf Nureyev was, the Soviet ballet performer was evidently anything but saintly, making Ralph Fiennes’ biographical drama something of a taxing experience due to its subject’s insufferable arrogance.
Set predominantly throughout the early 1960’s, the film presents Nureyev from the get-go as an unbearable force to be endured. Touching down in Paris with his Russian dancer cohorts, he immediately establishes himself as something of a lone wolf, venturing out on his own to experience the city on his own accord, something that rouses suspicion in his chaperone who sends two authoritative figures to tail him.
Portrayed with appropriate self-important gusto by Oleg Ivenko, a Ukrainian dancer-turned-first time actor, Nureyev appears as his own saboteur, constantly rejecting or hurting those that dare to assist him. As the film informs us through flashbacks (which also changes the ratio of the film) that his father was a cold man, Nureyev’s trait to hurt those around him almost seems understandable, but sequences where he verbally berates a sweet heiress (Adele Exarcharpoulos) – someone who would ultimately assist him in defecting from the Soviet Union – or sleeps with the wife of his kindly ballet teacher (Fiennes) certainly don’t endear him to us as someone we are meant to care for.
White Crow‘s closing segments – which detail the dancer’s infamous ambushing at an airport in a bid to send him back home where he believed he would be imprisoned for his reckless rule-breaking – are arguably the film’s strongest as it’s the only moment we sense any urgency in the storytelling. However, due to Nureyev’s constant characterisation as being God’s gift, the emotion we’re no doubt supposed to feel at his predicament is void, and you can’t help but want the KGB to haul his toned physique back to Russia.
Rudolf Nureyev is a fascinating character though, and when the film highlights his dancing ability it’s easy to see why he was heralded as one of the greatest dancers of all time. But the career he would go on to have – he would spend much of the 1980’s as the director of the Paris Opera Ballet – as well as the denial of his deteriorating health due to contracting HIV (he would ultimately succumb to the disease in 1993) is not of importance to director Fiennes or screenwriter David Hare (Damage, The Reader, Denial), ending the film after his successful defection to Paris.
A product that lacks the prestige and status of the figure its showcasing, The White Crow may pique the interest of dance enthusiasts, but as a highlight on a supposedly iconic man, this bird is grounded in mediocrity.