Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Movie Review: The White Crow (2018)


A biography of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev including events leading up to his 1961 defection to the West, The White Crow is purposeful but exceptionally slow and prolonged.

The film intermingles incidents from three time periods. Nureyev was born on a train in 1938 and endured a childhood in rural poverty despite the best efforts of his loving and dedicated mother. Nureyev's father, a stoic hunter, meets his son for the first time in 1945 after returning from the war.

In the 1950s Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) combines his talent with intense determination to become the Kirov Ballet's principal dancer, and instructor Alexander Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes) helps him perfect his art. Pushkin's wife also takes an interest in Nureyev's career and well-being. Always displaying a rebellious streak, Nureyev pushes the rules for male dancers, borrowing from the grace and fluidity of women's movement to galvanize the male role.

In 1961 the Kirov company is on a five week tour of Paris as part of a propaganda campaign to demonstrate Soviet artistic superiority. Nureyev stretches the limits set by the KGB handlers, touring the city on his own and socializing with French dancers and locals. He also befriends socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who helps introduce him to the Parisian social highlights.

A portrait of a self-made dance star, The White Crow conveys the single-minded and selfish fortitude Nureyev deployed to rise from humble beginnings to the bright lights of the world's most prestigious stages. The period details are enjoyable and Nureyev's personality is compelling, but the movie is not. In addition to his supporting role Ralph Fiennes assumes director duties, and is unable to sharpen the story into a worthwhile cinematic drama.

The film unfolds at a ponderous pace, stretching over two hours but stuck in the same emotional space throughout. With an absence of music and an overabundance of pregnant pauses and dull passages, The White Crow succeeds only as an admirable impression of still life.

The childhood scenes are black and white snippets, and most of the movie takes place in Russia of the 1950s and Paris of 1961. The ballet training studios and performance stages are similar in either setting, and it is sometimes difficult to track which time zone a scene is in. In adapting the book by Julie Kavanagh, screenwriter David Hare does not bother to define the people around Nureyev. The husband-and-wife Pushkins and Clara come closest to influencing Nureyev's life, but they remain vague tertiary characters, devoid of context.

For a long film about ballet, Fiennes reins in any tendencies for protracted dance scenes. Instead, an inordinate amount of time is invested in Nureyev soaking in Parisian art and culture, while KGB agents keep an eye from a distance. Both the dancer admiring classic art and the spooks surveilling their man are immersed in something more engaging than this film.






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