London Film Festival:  The White Crow

Writer: David Hare

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

On 16 June 1961 anyone passing through the departure lounge of Le Bourget Airport in Paris would have witnessed an extraordinary scene, Rudolf Nureyev gave his Soviet minders the slip and defected to the West. A celebrated star in his home country and a rebellious personality, Nureyev’s introduction to European audiences, culture and freedom left him wanting more. Ralph Fiennes’ third film as director explores the weeks leading-up to the defection of a man who placed his art far above anything else.

In 1961 Nureyev joined his company on tour in Paris, a few weeks in which their superior ballet performances would demonstrate the cultural heft of the Soviet Union. Provided with carefully managed tours of the city, Nureyev refused to comply, breaking Company rules by making his way to local clubs and bars while mixing with the multinational dance set. Warned repeatedly by his minders, Nureyev’s arrogance and determination to live his way soon set him at odds with the motherland.

Fiennes’ accomplished film eschews the self-determinism of most biopics and instead adopts a sensitive art-house approach that draws on the style of European and Russian film-makers. Clearly a very personal movie, Fiennes spoke with great emotion at its London Film Festival premiere about his love of Russian culture and the dedication of those who worked on and co-financed the film, including Liam Neeson and a rallying cry for the BBC.

The White Crow’s three strands mix together the Paris tour with Nureyev’s rise to fame in 1950s Russia as well as scenes from his rather bleak childhood. Perhaps a tad cliched, the latter scenes, filmed entirely in black and white, do serve a distinct psychological purpose in showing the audience the formation of character – how a poor boy born on a train, living in poverty and once abandoned by his taciturn father in the wood developed the self-contained drive that made him both monster and victim simultaneously as well as an undeniable superstar.

Central to this is the astonishing discovery of Oleg Ivenko, a trained ballet dancer whose film debut gives Nureyev both his rebellious freshness and athletic performance. The film is told from Nureyev’s perspective, so Fiennes focuses on his interior world, frequently retaining a tight focus on Ivenko’s cinematic face, it’s edges and occasional cruelty constantly alive with the depth of a dancer fighting for his art. While clearly inspired by European filmmakers, there’s more than a little James Dean in Ivenko’s determination to break the rules both of his country and of dance.

Relationships are key to The White Crow and we see how talent draws a huge crowd towards Nureyev. First a subtle friendship with the meek Pushkin, a dance instructor who taught Nureyev to think beyond the steps and played by Fiennes with a George Smiley-like understatement, a man who stood back and allowed his pupil to flourish in every capacity. His wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) has her own agenda as she cares for him after a fall.

Most important are his Parisian friends who show Nureyev their city and a new way of life. Chief among them is an ambiguous friendship with Adèle Exarchopoulos’ Clara Saint who champions his work while bearing the brunt of his rages. It’s a restrained performance from Exarchopoulos as a society girl in twinset and pearls who ultimately takes an enormous risk for a talented semi-stranger.

If Fiennes’ multilingual film has a fault it is that timelines are not always clear, and while initially given a stay of just five weeks in Paris, the different eras can be confusing, particularly the cuts between the grown-up Nureyev in Russia and Paris. Nonetheless, in a film tightly-focused on the individual, Fiennes has an eye for the beauty of the surrounding culture, particularly architecture and art, ensuring that we see it from Nureyev’s perspective as though with wonder for the first time.

David Hare’s screenplay is considerably more subtle than his current play at the National Theatre, asking important questions about the internationalisation of culture and its freedom from political doctrine, which as the world becomes more fractured is a discussion that will resonate. The White Crowis a beautifully crafted passion-project, one that ends at with a crucial moment in a Paris airport when ballet changed forever.

Release Date To Be Confirmed

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