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Lifting the Iron Curtain

Sony Pictures Classics

The White Crow (2019)

I blame John C. Reilly. “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” had such fun with the clichéd template of the artistic biopic that the genre still hasn’t recovered. Now biopics have to have an angle. For example, the Alberto Giacometti biopic, “Final Portrait,” focused on one specific sculpture of his. “The White Crow” similarly tries to have its cake and eat it: to focus both on the month Rudolf Nureyev spent in Paris before his famous defection in 1961, but also on the development of his talent as a child and as a young man. It doesn't quite succeed, but it’s such a Murderers’ Row of little known international dancing and acting talent that it's well worth seeing regardless.

There's three distinct timelines which are cut together, with varying levels of success: the main one is of Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko, Ukrainian) enjoying all the delights of Paris, such as shopping for toy trains, discreetly gay bars and having arguments in restaurants with his new friend, a grieving Chilean socialite named Clara (Adèle Exarchopoulos, French). The second part focuses on his studies at the school attached to the Mariinsky Ballet, under the tutelage of Alexander Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes, British, who speaks only Russian in the part). It's not long before Nureyev is sleeping on the floor of Pushkin's two-room apartment and being looked after by his wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova, Russian) in more ways than one.

Then there's the third section, which features an almost wordless performance from Maksimilian Grigoriyev (Russian) as the child Nureyev, who was born on a train and grew up unwilling to play with other children. These scenes are shot in color so sharp but muted they are essentially black and white, in such a beautiful style that they are a tone poem of memory, helplessness and childish mystery. They certainly go against the biopic cliché, and are incredibly beautiful to watch, but these sequences add the least to the overall film.

What works best is when Mr. Fiennes, who also directed, parks the camera on a crane in front of a stage and simply has us watch Mr. Ivenko and the others dance. The movie is unimaginable without him, a professional ballet dancer who can swap between Russian, French and English dialogue while perfectly embodying the physicality of someone who can own every stage, knows it, and cares about very little else. The other main dancers in the movie, namely Sergei Polunin (Russian/Serbian/Ukrainian) and Anna Urban (Russian) are as astonishing, and the movie soars with them when it just lets them go. Cinematographer Mike Eley (British) does a wonderful job of making the hard work of the ballet so palpable.

The most interesting gift the movie gives us is the series of scenes when we follow Nureyev drinking in the art in the Louvre and other museums, closely examining the representations of the body in art, in marble sculpture or paintings, in order to better work out what he wishes to express onstage. Mr. Eley films this style in that reminiscent of the French New Wave, all angles and close-ups and shining sun. But this fresh idea fizzles out, as the film focuses more on how the oppression of the Soviet state impeded Nureyev’s talent, both in flashback and also in endless arguments with Strizhevsky (Aleksey Morozov, Russian), the state minder along on the ballet company’s trip. Strizhevsky gets crosser and crosser that he must continually remind Nureyev that he is the point of the sword of state power, since he prefers to pretend that he's a nice guy, allowing the dancers some limited freedom. Nureyev calls bullshit, of course, because his fame and talent gives him the visibility to play with fire in a way the other dancers cannot.

That's where Clara comes in. You'd think she was an invention of the writer David Hare but apparently not. She’s the grieving pixie dream girl, a week out from burying her boyfriend, who nonetheless understands Nureyev’s talent enables him to behave selfishly, as that’s his only outlet for the pressures his talent has put him under, despite the cost to herself. When she tells him this, he grins and changes the subject; and she nods her head, to herself. A serious and self-aware young woman like this can only be respected. Besides, seeing Ms. Exarchopoulos on screen is always a pleasure.

We could have done with more of this emotional acuity. Mr. Ivenko does his best, but he’s not a professional actor. If he was, we could have gotten more inside the mind of a man who was able to bulldoze his way over the will of his teachers, his colleagues, his new friends in Paris and eventually the entire Soviet state. Instead we get small scenes between Nureyev and a dancer called Teja Kremke (Louis Hoffmann, German, who evidently received fourth billing as recompense for the nude scene), between Nureyev, Xenia and a thermos of soup, and between Nureyev and various weary functionaries of the Soviet state, where the other actors do the heavy lifting. There's even a brief party in a crowded student flat in Leningrad, which lifts the lid to another movie about Nureyev’s studies outside the dance studio, but instantly is forgotten.

So the question becomes, why have Messrs. Fiennes and Hare told the story in this way? They do not appear to be exploring the emotions; and they are not – despite some gauzy shots and the coy nudity – exploring the body, or the sexuality of someone who lives off their body. They are not exploring the geopolitics of 1961; they are not exploring Paris and/or its art. In Russian, “white crow” is analogous to “black sheep” in English, but with the sense of something more special than a sheep. Like a swan, perhaps. What this movie is, however ineptly, exploring is the experience of making art, and how the pressure of being an artist shapes the life the artist lives. If the Soviet Union had not interfered with his dancing, would Nureyev have defected? Almost certainly not. Was he aware of how these pressures shaped his self? In this telling, not really.

“The White Crow” should have held its nerve and dove into both the physical and mental space a superior artist must inhabit, and properly examined the costs. But while it fails in that, it has given quite a boost to many actors who deserve a chance for wider recognition in the English-speaking world. In that sense the film is a mirror of its subject. Mr. Fiennes has decades of experience working in this niche, back from when he starred in his sister Martha Fiennes’s adaptation of “Onegin” in 1999. So a little clumsiness is something well worth tolerating, especially when the camera just watches Mr. Ivenko own the floor.


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