Julie Kavanagh’s 2011 biography, “Rudolf Nureyev: The Life,” serves as the basis for Ralph Fiennes third film as director, “The White Crow,” featuring the acting debut of 22-year-old Ukrainian-born Oleg Ivenko as the original Lord of the Dance.
It was 1961 when Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union to the West, generating headlines around the globe. At the time, the acclaimed Russian dancer was a featured soloist with the Kirov Opera Ballet. Ivenko is superb as Nureyev in the well-crafted film by Fiennes who plays legendary ballet teacher Alexander Pushkin who trained Nureyev and another Russian great, Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Ivenko has an intensity that is perfect for the role of Rudolf Nureyev. His natural performance is a result of months of preparation with Fiennes who sought authenticity by casting a dancer rather than an actor. If you’re going to make a film about one of the greatest male ballet dancers of all time you can’t pull it off with tricky editing and stand-ins.
“White Crow” is a term used by Russians to describe an odd member of a group like the more common “Black Sheep” used here in the U.S. Nureyev certainly fit the bill as the young dancer refused to go along with the flow.
Fiennes uses flashbacks to showcase Nureyev’s childhood that began with his birth on a Trans-Siberian train. While most kids played together, the future ballet great was already honing his dance skills. Moving to the present, in this case, the mid-’50s, we see a self-willed Nureyev bucking the system once again by asking to be transferred to a different class at Saint Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet after bumping heads with the instructor. That move changed his life forever after putting the novice dancer in the hands of master instructor Alexander Pushkin.
The well-choreographed dance sequences are few and far between as the film adapted by screenwriter David Hare (“The Hours”) concentrates on what makes Nureyev tick. Pushkin took such a great interest in the young prodigy that he let Nureyev move into his home shared with wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova). There were rumors that she had a weakness for young dancers and that Pushkin, a quiet and reserved man, was totally fine with her obsession. The subject is covered in the film as Nureyev gives in to Xenia’s advances.
The film only mildly touches on the sexuality of Nureyev, who we see in bed with East German ballet student Teja Kremke (Louis Hofmann). His relationship with Parisian socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is also covered in the film as she becomes a major ally in his quest for freedom during a thrilling scene filled with tension as Nureyev evades his KGB escorts in Paris’ Le Bourget Airport to seek asylum from the French authorities.
“The White Crow” is not a standard biopic. It concentrates on Nureyev’s early years and the motivation behind his defection to the West. Ivenko delivers a first-rate debut while Fiennes, speaking only in Russian, is also at the top of his game, both as actor and director.