Thursday 11 October 2018

Movie Review: White Nights (1985)

A dance drama, White Nights sets up an appealing Cold War premise but is more clunky than smooth in delivering basic plot points.

Celebrated ballet dancer Nikolai 'Kolya' Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov) defected to the west from the Soviet Union eight years ago. Now while on a flight to Tokyo with his publicist Anne Wyatt (Geraldine Page), an electrical fault forces the plane into an emergency landing at a Siberian military air base. Soviet Colonel Chaiko (Jerzy Skolimowski) seizes Kolya as a criminal and places him in the company of Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines), a tap dancer who defected from the United States to the USSR and then married his interpreter Darya (Isabella Rossellini).

Chaiko's plan is to repatriate Kolya and get him to perform again at the Kirov ballet in Leningrad as a Soviet propaganda victory. To this end Kolya's previous lover and dance partner Galina Ivanova (Helen Mirren) is deployed to convince him to recommit to his homeland. But Kolya will not give up on freedom, and builds a strong bond with Raymond and Darya to try and plot an escape.

Directed by Taylor Hackford, White Nights earns points for an imaginative story, tapping into the Cold War's cultural front as well as Baryshnikov's own real-life story (he defected in 1974). And the quest to integrate ballet into a dramatic narrative works much better here than in Herbert Ross' hopelessly melodramatic The Turning Point.

The title refers to the constant daylight during the summer months in Russia's northern reaches, and the first half of the film, set in the harsh Siberian landscape, is a surreal waking nightmare for Kolya. From the crash landing back in the country from which he escaped, to tangling with Chaiko and then finally meeting Raymond, a black American confined to a vaudeville stage in Siberia, Hackford adroitly creates a world standing on its head for the sophisticated New York-based dance superstar.

The juxtaposition of Raymond and Kolya is at the the heart of the film. Other than providing an opportunity for ballet and tap dancing to share the centre stage spotlight, Raymond offers an alternative view of the American Dream as seen by a black man who outgrew the cute tap dancing kid label and was forced into military service in a war he did not believe in. Raymond's disillusionment festered into a full grown abandonment of his homeland, although his espousal of communist beliefs is never portrayed as anything other than shallow.

Most of the film's other details don't work too well. The sputtering memory of a relationship between Kolya and Galina is stranded in a repetitive loop, and the thriller elements that creep into the final act are unnecessary and quite unconvincing. The performances are constrained by Baryshnikov and Hines, dancers mostly masquerading as actors. And in her first American film, Isabella Rossellini struggles in a bland role.

White Nights maintains sufficient forward momentum to make it across the Cold War demarcation line, but much like a night full of light, not all the elements fit quite right.

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