“The White Crow” is a flawed yet still fascinating film.
Handsomely staged, capably brought to life by cast and crew, it’s a compelling depiction of an extraordinary man at the center of a moment in history that at the time became an international sensation.
On an aesthetic level, however, a few specific technical choices the production undertakes ultimately prove to be distracting. They’re not enough to ruin the viewing experience, but enough to detract from how satisfying it could have been.
What’s it about?
“The White Crow” focuses on three pivotal time periods in the life of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf “Rudi” Nureyev.
It moves back and forth between his impoverished childhood, his student years in Leningrad beginning in 1955, and his pivotal visit to Paris with the Kirov Dance Company in 1961 at just 23 years old, the trip that would ultimately change his life.
The adult Rudi is complex, to say the least. Intense and magnetic, his talent is clear to almost everyone he works with. However, he’s an iconoclast, hostile to rules and conventions even as a student.
Those attitudes, coupled with his interest in Western art and intellectuals, make him a source of suspicion to his Soviet handlers. But his disdain for being stifled in any sense keeps him from caring about potential consequences for his actions.
His increasingly difficult behavior in Paris finally brings about a moment of reckoning for the young dancer. He’s forced to choose between wholly different worlds, and regardless of his choice there will be consequences.
Going for authenticity
First and foremost, “The White Crow” feels authentic and true to the real-life story that inspired it thanks to the production making a number of very deliberate choices.
Perhaps the most important of these is casting. The cast is primarily made up of Russian dancers, including the film’s lead, Oleg Ivenko. Most of the film’s dialogue is in Russian, as well.
The film also effectively conveys just how compelling and transformative Nureyev’s dancing was to audiences of the time and ballet in general. The film’s numerous scenes with Nureyev on stage as a solo performer are impressive, even if you don’t know anything about ballet.
Then there’s the effort to bring to life Nureyev himself. Director Ralph Fiennes (“The Grand Budapest Hotel“) helps Ivenko, a first-time actor, find and effectively project the relentlessness of spirit that apparently drove Nureyev.
Ivenko also benefits from stellar performances around him. Fiennes himself delivers a memorable turn as Nureyev’s most important teacher, Alexander Pushkin, while Russian performers Chulpan Khamatova and Aleksey Morozov provide critical, nuanced performances as Pushkin’s wife, Xenia, and KGB handler Strizhevsky, respectively.
Where “The White Crow” fails to stick the landing is in its editing.
Fiennes chooses to avoid organizing the film chronologically. Instead, it jumps between eras and locations, sometimes without discernible reason.
While it’s easy enough to tell when we’re watching a flashback to Nureyev’s childhood, the production doesn’t do enough to distinguish between scenes in 1955 and 1961. Keeping track of where and when you are in the film gets distracting after a while.
The film’s also feels every minute of its 127 minute running time. The pace of the film slows to almost a crawl in its second act before recovering as it reaches its well-staged climax and conclusion.
Are those faults enough to sink the film entirely? Hardly.
There’s still much in “The White Crow” to enjoy – it’s an incredible story about a remarkable talent and the complicated man possessed of that talent. Bring your interest in the arts and your patience for subtitles (unless you speak Russian) and you should be just fine.
The White Crow
Starring Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Louis Hofmann. Directed by Ralph Fiennes.
Running time: 127 minutes
Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, and language.