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Movie Review: “The White Crow”

“White Crow” opens at Landmark Hillcrest on May 3.
Photo credit:
sonyclassics.com

This seems to be ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s year in movie theaters. A documentary called “Nureyev” about his life, artistic successes and ultimate defection to the West is making the rounds as we speak.

This week, well-known actor Ralph Fiennes opens “The White Crow,” another film about Nureyev. This one concentrates on his 1961 defection at the Paris airport, when his ballet troupe was about to leave for an engagement in London. Fiennes directs and stars in this story of the extraordinary boy who became a worldwide phenomenon.

A “white crow” is an outsider, someone who doesn’t fit in with the rest. Nureyev certainly fit that description, on and off the dance floor. He chafed at the discipline required for ballet. He wanted to be seen, and was willing to do whatever it took to make sure people were watching him. Fortunately, he also had the technique and ability to make that happen.

Nureyev’s life would have made a great novel. Born into poverty in Russia, his mother took him and his two sisters to a ballet when they were very young, and indulged the boy’s instant love of dance (his military father was less entranced). 

Fiennes enlisted playwright/screenwriter David Hare to write the screenplay. Hare is a good playwright, but I’m sorry to report that this effort is a holy mess.

What I want to see in a film about a dance phenom is, well, dancing. Instead,

Hare and Fiennes decided to portray three time frames: Paris in 1961, the Leningrad years from 1955-1961 and Nureyev’s childhood years in the late 1940s. The onscreen action hurtles back and forth rather nervously, almost unintelligibly from a story standpoint. The press information tells me it was done deliberately, to keep the audience wondering what comes next. The scenes don’t flow, they jump.

There isn’t even much dance here – understandably, because Nureyev is no longer alive to do it. Instead, Fiennes gives us lots of footage of Nureyev (played by Russian dancer Oleg Ivenko) wandering the streets of Paris and chumming around with socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), all of which made him certain that he wanted to defect. It’s an important story (Nureyev was the first significant defector from Russia) – and the harrowing event itself is fairly gripping – but it misses the point of why we should care.

This is no knock on Ivenko, a fine young dancer, but watching him dance will never give filmgoers an understanding of what made Nureyev so very special. Only Nureyev could dance like that.

If you don’t know much about Nureyev going into “The White Crow,” you won’t know much when you leave either. For the real story, try to find the documentary “Nureyev,” which features clips from childhood on – and lots of dance

“White Crow” opens at Landmark Hillcrest on May 3.