It’s a common mistake – to take our admiration for an artist’s work and warp it into a misplaced love for the artist himself. Most of us will never know the artist: the subject of our anonymous infatuation. Instead we may judge their entire being on our assessment of their creative output, assuming that great work must equate to “great person”. It’s a trap and a juvenile pursuit akin to the worship of teen pop idols. Some deeply unpleasant people are responsible for remarkable works of art, music and literature.
Enter Rudolph Nureyev, the subject of Raiph (aka Ralph) Fiennes’ latest film project. Fiennes directs, co-produces and co-stars in the venture, delivering a serene, charismatic, and understated performance as Alexander Pushkin (the other one); Nureyev’s ballet mentor of choice. Nureyev himself is capably played by Ukranian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko; remarkably a newcomer to the film genre. The narrative – based on Rudolf Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh – pivots around events surrounding Nureyev’s 1961 defection in Paris whilst shedding some light (though perhaps not enough) on the dancer’s formative years.
Sorry, what kind of crow?
A “White Crow” is a Russian figure of speech used to describe an ‘oddball’ or someone who simply “doesn’t fit in”. He or she is considered unusual, awkward, or even a “weirdo” – in our parlance. Unsurprisingly, Nureyev is the White Crow in question, and we learn that the term was even his childhood nickname.
The inference is that he took his otherness and transformed it into greatness. What other positive choice do “weirdos” have? In his case the transformation was achieved via a monomania centered on dance – something that he embraced as a child, where he could excel without the awkwardness of social interaction.
The film also emphasises his love for the great artworks of history and shows him sneaking out early to experience the masterpieces held in the Hermitage and the Louvre before class/rehearsals started. There he could bask in the glory of the works, in isolation -before his experience could be polluted by the presence of others.
White Crow is visually competent, with locations, costumes, and lighting contriving to effectively convey the era, locations and societal contrast between Soviet Russia and capitalist France. Nowhere is this more dramatically highlighted than the 1st night after-party in Paris where western hosts and eastern guests eye each other nervously from opposing sides of the room. It’s Nureyev of course that strides across the invisible barrier to introduce himself, whilst his ever-present minders look disapprovingly on.
Throughout the 2 hour 7 minute running time the camera seeks to doggedly record each scene as if capturing evidence, when a little more flair would not have gone amiss. Briefly, in the impressive (but oddly few) scenes of ballet performance, it is allowed to rise and flow with the charismatic central character -and then we realise what could have been, and how engaged we should have felt.
As it is, Ivenko pins each scene to the screen with ice and fire – though closely followed by Fiennes himself. No mean feat when depicting a diametrically opposite character of such calmly spoken reserve and benevolence.
Much of the film is presented as a collage of flashbacks without Hollywood style date-stamping so we are expected to pay attention. These often quick-fire sections remove strict linear narrative and verge upon dreamlike in their abstract presentation as we flicker through past moments to ultimately land back in the film’s ‘present’.
The film as a whole is a flashback however, with the narrative sandwiched between cuts of a post-defection interview, where a state official questions Nureyev’s mentor over the issues of “why?”. “It was an explosion of character”, the mentor quietly states.
As if to assist in our chronological sorting, the dimness of childhood memory is suitably colour-coded drab blue-black with scenes that deliver more questions than answers. Had the young Rudolph never met his father until the senior Nureyev returned from war? Did his father abandon him in the forest as a lesson? Or was he just late returning? Why is he obsessed with buying the perfect model train set whilst in Paris?!
No (more) Mr Nice Guy
Perhaps the answers lie in Kavanagh’s book. No we don’t need everything spelled out, but the tantalising flashbacks hint at an origin story that may have been more engaging than the central character’s often one-note, unapologetic belligerence -as depicted here in Nureyev’s defection era. It’s hard to root for someone who so cruelly berates those who admire and assist him, and who cheats with the wife of the kindly mentor who has taken him into his own home to convalesce after a broken ankle.
We assume that this senior figure is also instrumental in preventing Nureyev from being posted back to his hometown (Ufa, Russia) to dance – far from the limelight, but gift-upon-gift is still not enough. A token note of guilt is all he offers by way of repentance.
Even the minder who grants him leniency is rewarded with schoolboy petulance when forced to confront him about his nocturnal Parisienne escapades. These are all strictly against protocol of course, and liable to put this Soviet representative at dire personal risk, should his bosses at home find out. The fate of this individual who ultimately “loses” Nureyev, the jewel of the Soviet ballet- to the west, is not shown; though one character unambiguously states that it would likely be brief and terminal.
Nureyev’s character (in adulthood) is only allowed to display vulnerability at the inevitable airport standoff, where Russian handlers -sick of their star’s transgressions- seek to return him under false pretences to home ground, effectively taking his world-stage away. Here, he pitifully pleads for help from his new French friends – including Parisienne socialite Clara Saint, whom he mercilessly and unapologetically insulted (again) only a few scenes prior.
This scene is the competently handled payoff to all that went before, turning the screw, whilst time -and the chance of escape- trickles away. Ms Saint’s character and motivations are never explored however, which is a pity.
Although featuring throughout as little more than a side character (or a potential love interest), her role in the final standoff is suddenly and absolutely key. That’s quite a leap. Without her knowledge and status, the defection -from under the noses of Nureyev’s Soviet minders- may never have occurred.
Of course fans of Nureyev -and many others- will already know the outcome, prior to viewing, but the steely, chess-like maneuvering is still interesting to watch.
Incidentally, White Crow is also very good for Russian language practice, with clearly spoken, subtitled Russian throughout.