Drama/biography, rated R, 127 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2 chiles
Famed dancer Rudolf Nureyev was born on a trans-Siberian train. His youth was spent in a poverty-stricken city in the Soviet Union. And in 1961, he defected at a Paris airport. The White Crow, a new biopic, should make for a compelling story about the sacrifices we make for freedom and for art. Sadly, it never quite seems to gel, despite a thoroughly convincing performance from first-time actor Oleg Ivenko as Nureyev, and despite its often gorgeous cinematography.
Disrupting what could have been a more heart-pounding buildup to the fateful confrontation with KGB agents at Le Bourget Airport is third-time director Ralph Fiennes’ odd pacing and nonsequential arrangement of time. White Crow courses over Nureyev’s early life, jumping from past to present to past again in a way that feels disjointed and confusing.
The washed-out colors of Ufa, where the young Nureyev lived as the only son in a Muslim family of Tatars until his training in Leningrad, make the bleakness of this period in the young dancer’s life more palpable. But after a while, it feels like Fiennes relies too heavily on this as a strategy to cast the Soviet Union in somber tones, rather than relying on good, old-fashioned storytelling.
The dance sequences in Leningrad and Paris, by contrast, come alive with sumptuous color and feel almost dreamlike, reflecting Nureyev’s burgeoning passion and growing mastery. But there’s not enough dancing to really capture the import of Nureyev’s impact on ballet.
Nureyev was an artist who refused to play by the rules. He defies the expectations of the ballet school in Leningrad, run by Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes in a minor role). Later, in Paris, where Nureyev is touring with the renowned Kirov Ballet company, he exasperates his KGB chaperones by eluding their constant surveillance, sneaking out to gay clubs, and visiting the Louvre. His senses are awakened by a newfound taste of freedom.
“It’s about dance,” Pushkin says early on, explaining Nureyev’s defection to a Soviet bureaucrat who’s concerned about the political repercussions. “He knows nothing about politics.” That may be true. But the nonlinear approach to storytelling undermines the sense of escalating tensions that make us really feel it. Fiennes had an opportunity to say something about the implications of government interference and the surveillance state on artistic expression, but the film falls flat. Only in the last few moments does the tension become visceral and the stakes feel high, but it’s too little, too late.