Ralph Fiennes’ tale of Russian dancer and defector Rudolf Nureyev is stylish but fails to slip into its characters’ ballet flats.
I have a lot of questions: “Why do so many movies insist on proving themselves instead of blossoming organically?” I asked myself as I sat in the theater for The White Crow. “Why choose this sort of structure?” I thought each time a scene passed. But most of all, I found myself thinking the same thing over and over: “Why make this film? There are so many movies to put effort into, so why this one?”
When a real-life story is as engaging as The White Crow’s, and these questions still cloud around me, there must be a lot of problems. A lot of them come from Ralph Fiennes, who, directing his third feature, seems all too eager to prove himself. Not only has he chosen to tell the life story of acclaimed dancer Rudolf Nureyev and his defection from the Soviet Union to France, but he’s sprinkled it with the ostensive signs of an artiste.
That includes a nonlinear structure, a supporting role for himself, and nearly monochromatic flashbacks that look like the opening of Antichrist as shot with an Instagram filter. There’s something good in here, but it isn’t visible onscreen. If the viewer squints hard enough, though, they might be able to see a driving force. Oleg Ivenko plays Rudolph Nureyev, the iconic Soviet dancer who earned a spot at the Bolshoi ballet company in Moscow.
The film sees him as a stone-faced dreamer. You know the kind—the kind that gives death glares at anyone who dares question his natural-born talent. That includes Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes), the ballet master who probes the ingénue with questions about their craft. “Why do we dance?” he asks Nureyev. “Everyone focuses on technique but not on why.” That “everyone,” as it would appear, includes the filmmakers themselves. The White Crow is so obsessed with keeping up appearances that it fails to dive below the surface.
David Hare’s (The Hours, The Reader) script sleepily introduces a troupe of characters, including Nureyev’s love interest, Clara (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who instantly falls for him despite having lost her boyfriend to a car crash just six days prior. Also in the mix is his roommate, Yuri (Sergei Polunin), with whom Nureyev begins a tryst. As the film plays, it becomes clear that these subplots don’t have much of an endpoint. They’re vehicles for themes instead.
The White Crow is so obsessed with keeping up appearances that it fails to dive below the surface.
That could have worked, but Fiennes and Hare never go deep enough into the more salient ideas regarding national identity, gender identity, and sexuality. In its places are flashbacks of Nureyev’s childhood with his mother, shot pallidly by Mike Eley (My Cousin Rachel). It’s a shame, too, since the bulk of the film looks quite nice with its 16mm photography, gauzily giving a sense of time.
And while the film looks quite good, those sensibilities are lost from a narrative perspective. The muddled structure constricts all but the most overt scenes that, even in a grander scope, feel anticlimactic and lack the requisite intrigue both personally and politically. Ivenko, who is a dancer in real life, does strong work in the ballet scenes but stumbles through his dialogue. It’s especially distracting in his scenes opposite Fiennes, whose work is leagues better in front of the camera than behind it. Again, he’s all about that technique. It’s the why that’s missing.
Where’s the sense of scope? Where’s the specificity, the momentum, the insight? Just like how Pushkin asks why artists plunge so much into their craft, I couldn’t help but ask why Fiennes and Hare wanted to tell this story. Their portrayal of Nureyev is little more than of an arrogant brat. Even if there is truth to that, there has to be more. Their film lacks cultural insight and its characters hold little weight, and for a movie about a dancer, it’s far too stiff to work.
So just why do we dance? I’m still not sure.