White Crow (2019)

Starring: Oleg Ivenko and Ralph Fiennes

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Screenwriter: David Hare

Producer: Sony Pictures

Rated R

Running Time: 127 min.

Russian, French, English, with English subtitles

IMDb link
Official Website

Even given transparent formulas for box office success, it’s curious how each filmmaker’s starting point holds out an argument of its own. Ralph Fiennes, who directs and appears in “White Crow,” a film that collects around the idiosyncrasies of ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, finds his in the dancer’s “ferocious sense of destiny” and a desire to shoot dance sequences from a different perspective.

Each viewer’s expectations cannot help but be conditioned by the dancer’s outsized celebrity. In my case (full disclosure), I included Nureyev in my 2007 collective biography “First Position: a century of ballet artists” (Praeger Publishers 2007). So I was looking forward to a visual replica of an emphasis on the dancer’s development into a virtuoso. If you too were expecting something along those lines, this may not be the film for you.

To solve the geographical and language problems posed by the actual story of Nureyev’s life, Fiennes chooses, with each new expository scene, to start over again from the point of origin. The first takes place on the Trans-Siberian Express, the train on which little Rudik was born somewhere between Kushnarenkovo and Ufa, a small village outside of Vladivostok. His mobile birth prompted Rudi to joke not that there’s no place like home, but that there’s no place called home, though he grew up in Ufa. The action shifts to Leningrad (now Petersburg) where he trained at the Vaganova Institute and gained notoriety as its resident enfant terrible. Then we follow Fiennes’ peripatetic lens to Paris, where Nureyev defects while his white-knuckled friend Clara Saint outwits the hovering NKVD-style school administrator Shelkov.  There are moments when It can feel as if we’re riding on the camera’s dolly, from Ufa to Leningrad to Paris and back again, with each successive loop in a yarn in three languages, trolled out by screenwriter David Hare.

The storyline is so labyrinthine that a recent online edition of Dance Magazine published a guide to the film, and reasonably so. Its author, Courtney Escoyne, writes that Fiennes admitted that he has “little interest” in ballet. He was moved to make the film by the challenge of shooting dance to achieve less of a flat “en face” look and more of an “écarté,” profile—that is, from an acute angle. This proved problematic, and dance sequences had to be shot several times over so as not to sacrifice the balletic aesthetic.

The result is a work of filmic craftsmanship offering a narrow profile of Nureyev’s training and an even more scant glimpse of his stellar career. In this thin version, temper tantrums, rude, self-serving behavior, and just enough charm to grease the rails, gang up to sketch a caricature of the artist.

Fiennes devotes much footage to Nureyev’s affair with Zenia (Xsana) Pushkin, the wife of his teacher Alexander Pushkin (played by Fiennes), with insinuations about Rudi’s homosexual orientation roughed in. Pushkin’s mentorship, expressed in a patient yet imaginative teaching style, revered by all who studied with him in real life, goes missing. Fiennes plays the teacher as a defeated, spineless cuckold, inclined to fold in the face of bullying by the nomenklatura in the person of the Stalinist hack administrator, Shelkov. Unfortunately, the story ends with Nureyev’s defection, which in real life, is where it was just beginning.

While the elements that provoked his defection were at play in the period the film covers, there is so much more substance to the story of Nureyev—all of which occurred after his defection, the exception being his early relationship with the Cuban dancer Menia Martínez, which there is no trace of here. After Nureyev defected, came the celebrated partnership he shared with Royal Ballet of London star Margot Fonteyn, and others who were not as much of a target for the paparazzi, but whose artistic merit added to Nureyev’s standing. Among them were Maria Tallchief, Alicia Alonso, and Carla Fracci. His close, productive, and yet fractious relationship with Danish Danseur Noble Erik Bruhn also took place post-defection. How is it possible, in a period piece, to leave out Nureyev’s having fallen victim to HIV-AIDS, or the appeal of music that led him to learn conducting and conduct an orchestra, even while sidelined by the disease? It is only possible if your focus is on the tawdry: his sexual encounters and Inspector Clouseau-style defection.

The title “White Crow,” is more or less the Russian equivalent of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Ugly Duckling.” It’s as if in his personal life, he is the ugly duckling. The beautiful swan emerges only in the dance sequences, where Ivenko is outstanding, but cannot rise to the daunting task of capturing the virtuosic rakishness that Nureyev brought to the stage.

Though it’s hard to imagine that Fiennes, with his concern about the look of the film, would settle for a tabloid version of the character, yet in the end, that is what audiences are left with.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.