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In 1961, 23-year-old Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev became the first Soviet artist to defect from the Soviet Union to the West. With The White Crow, director Ralph Fiennes creates a tense, climactic sequence out of this crucial moment. It takes place at an airport in Paris, where Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) has spent the last several weeks with his company. Just before he boards his plane to London for another run of performances, he is informed that he alone will be taken back to the Soviet Union without his fellow dancers. On the spot, he makes the life-altering decision to defect, then waits in excruciating agony as French officials and his Soviet caretakers jostle over his fate. On one side is freedom, and on the other a likely lengthy imprisonment.
It’s the only standout scene in the film, which has a strong sense of place and purpose but lacks a firm grasp on its story. Nureyev is introduced to us as an arrogant young talent, who arrives for a series of performances in Paris ready for the spotlight. He relishes his time onstage—Ivenko, a Ukranian dancer and first-time actor, impressively captures the young star’s talent—but the real story happens after each performance, when Nureyev samples the Parisian nightlife with new friends including the wealthy widower Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos). They eat, drink, and visit risque cabaret shows, while his state-sponsored handlers grow increasingly worried about his dalliances with free society.
It’s an intriguing set-up, but Fiennes and his esteemed screenwriter David Hare fail to build on it. The White Crow doesn’t really have a beginning or a middle, just one long cycle that replays itself over and over again: Nureyev goes out after a performance, is chastised by the state, and then rebels against it in increasingly dangerous ways. Wash, rinse, repeat. There are powerful moments scattered throughout, like when he rails against a high-ranking Soviet official who is watching his rehearsal. He claims that the official doesn’t deserve to be there because he lacks talent—and Nureyev is such an arrogant character we almost take him at his word—but really it’s the encroaching influence of the state on his art that he finds so oppressive.
Watching The White Crow, you might be tempted to look for an argument about the relationship between art and state, but Fiennes doesn’t have much new to say on the subject. In an early scene that acts as a framing device, his instructor Pushkin (played by Fiennes) tells an investigator inquiring about the motives behind Nureyev’s defection, “He knows nothing about politics. It’s about dance.” It should be a refreshing take on the Cold War, eschewing spy movie conventions and international intrigue for an attempt to glorify the art that somehow survived.
Except The White Crow isn’t about dance. It’s about the character of Nureyev, who ultimately is not drawn well enough to warrant the attention. Interspersed throughout the main narrative are black-and-white flashbacks to his unstable childhood, but they do little to make up for the void at the film’s center. Ivenko is an adequate actor, but his take on Nureyev, as a petulant child rebelling against the paternal state, doesn’t leave much room for depth of character, and he loses his ability to emote when he speaks in broken English, which he does frequently. It’s a story with a hole at its center, a dance with plenty of feeling but not enough technique.
The White Crow opens Friday at the Avalon Theatre.