The White Crow review: Ralph Fiennes' best film yet as a director

Director: Ralph Fiennes; Starring: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Louis Hofmann, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Sergei Polunin, Chulpan Khamatova, Olivier Rabourdin. Cert 12A, 127 mins

Early on in Ralph Fiennes’s biopic of ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev, the title is explained. “White crow” is Russian slang for a person who is “unusual” and not like the others. It is a double-edged term used both for someone of exceptional ability and for an outsider who doesn’t fit in anywhere. Nureyev (brilliantly played by young Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko) fits the description. He is extremely arrogant. “Little girl, if you like apologies, you are with the wrong man,” he tells a friend he has embarrassed and let down. He has great strength of character and yet is sensitive and thin-skinned.

One of the fascinations of the film, elegantly scripted by playwright David Hare, is the mixture of storytelling styles. Some scenes play as if they belong in a Cold War thriller. Others give us a familiar portrait of the artist in his formative years, while the flashbacks to Nureyev’s childhood are in the style of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky at his most evocative and poetic.

Fiennes may be British but, throughout his career, he has taken on Russian projects. He has starred in adaptations of Alexander Pushkin’s Onegin and Ivan Turgenev’s Two Women. Here, playing Nureyev’s mentor, Pushkin, he himself speaks in Russian. The cast is filled with Russian actors.

For all its biting observations about Soviet-era censorship and its reflections on the pain of exile, the film offers a romantic (and slightly hackneyed) view of the suffering, artistic Russian soul. The language used to describe Nureyev’s behaviour is sometimes very solemn and self-conscious. The dancer doesn’t defect to the west because he is sick of Soviet bureaucracy and oppression, but because he has had what Pushkin calls an “explosion of character”.

Nureyev’s emergence as a dancer is indeed an unlikely story. The filmmakers include a scene of his mother giving birth to him in an overcrowded train, an incident in his own private mythology which appears to fuel his unlikely obsession with toy railway sets. He is from a very humble peasant background. There is a story about his first exposure to opera (and performance) at a young child. There were six family members with one ticket to share between them but he was the one who saw the show.

The protagonist here has plenty of obstacles to leap over in both his personal and professional life. Nureyev endures injury and the threat of banishment to the Russian provinces. His living arrangements are bizarre. His mentor Pushkin is so struck by the young dancer’s raw passion that he takes him in as a lodger in his small but beautifully furnished apartment.

Pushkin’s wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) dotes on young Rudi and, eventually, between making him cups of tea and darning his socks, begins an affair with him. Pushkin takes being cuckolded in his stride. Fiennes plays him as a mild-mannered, self-effacing man who, at times, seems as if he is in love with Nureyev himself and is determined to mould the younger man’s character, Pygmalion style.

The most dramatic scenes here are those in Paris in 1961 in the buildup to Nureyev’s defection. He has come to the city as one of the lead dancers with the Kirov Ballet. It’s the height of the Cold War but there are no hints that he is remotely interested in politics. He is just naturally far more free-spirited than his minders would like him to be, wandering off to museums, nightclubs and restaurants, and speaking without inhibition to the westerners, whether or not they are socialists. He becomes firm friends with a wealthy, well-connected and chic young French-Chilean, Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos).

One of the obvious points the drama makes is that life for a single-minded artist like Nureyev is a continual process of casting off. At every stage of his career, he outgrows mentors or is obliged to leave family or friends behind him. Defecting is just another step in this process.

The dancing scenes, whether the rehearsals or performances, have an authentic feel. The lead actor Oleg Ivenko is an accomplished performer and the supporting cast includes the real life ballet star Sergei Polunin. Given Polunin’s mercurial abilities as a dancer and the obvious parallels between his own life story as “the bad boy of ballet” and that of Nureyev, it is a surprise that he isn’t playing the main role himself. Fiennes, though, presumably cast Ivenko as much for his acting ability as for his charisma on stage.

There is little of the backstage hysteria found in other dance movies from The Red Shoes and Black Swan or the documentary Bolshoi Babylon. It is apparent that the Soviet authorities wouldn’t tolerate such behaviour from their dancers. Nureyev may be headstrong but he also accepts his teacher’s advice that ballet is about discipline and rules.

Tension mounts significantly in a brilliantly staged sequence in the Paris airport as the Kirov dancers prepare to fly to London. A standoff develops between the French and the Russians with Nureyev caught in the middle. It seems as if we’ve been plunged into the world of John Le Carré. You half expect someone to be stabbed with a poisoned umbrella. Phlegmatic French airport police deal with a fraught and very dangerous situation as if it is an everyday occurrence.

Even in these scenes, Fiennes combines the thriller elements with poetic flashbacks to Nureyev’s childhood and keeps a tight focus on the dancer. When he is most at risk, Nureyev makes decisions with his artistic future more in mind than his personal safety. As Fiennes reminds us again and again in what is his best film yet as a director, the “white crow” will do anything to put himself in the limelight, the one place he is convinced he belongs.