Talented and mercurial in equal measure, the dancer Rudolf Nureyev redefined what ballet could be. “The White Crow,” a new biopic from director Ralph Fiennes, focuses on the most important decision in the dancer’s early life: the moment when, at 23, he defected from the Soviet Union. While the details of Nureyev’s 1961 defection in Paris are thrilling, the film falls into the trap of many historical dramas, rendering the story as surprisingly clunky, especially considering the nimbleness of its subjects.
Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko makes his acting debut as Nureyev, whom we first meet as his company has landed in Paris for a series of special performances. Ivenko looks strikingly like Nureyev, and he has no trouble conveying the dancer’s legendary bravado. An early scene shows the members of the Soviet troupe in a ballroom, where they are meant to mingle with their French counterparts, yet they stay separated, like kids at a school dance. Finally, an annoyed Nureyev traverses the gap, striking up a conversation with the French dancer Pierre Lacotte (Raphael Personnaz). Their friendship is apolitical, based mostly on mutual respect — at least until their fraternization draws the attention of Nureyev’s handlers.
Playwright David Hare’s screenplay jumps between Paris and formative episodes in Nureyev’s upbringing in the U.S.S.R. Fiennes — who plays choreographer Alexander Pushkin, delivering his lines entirely in Russian — exerts an influence over Nureyev that is critical. Such flashbacks, however, fail to inform the decision to defect, instead merely detailing the obstacles that one might encounter in any biography of a Great Man. At one point, Pushkin tells Nureyev that the transition from one movement to the next must be both effortless and inexorable. Unfortunately, all the film’s crosscutting is anything but fluid. Romantic subplots that illuminate Nureyev’s bisexuality, for example — an important part of the dancer’s life — unfold out of a seeming sense of obligation, not because they’re essential.
The film’s best sequence, because it’s light on politics and heavy on details, concerns the actual defection. In these scenes, the stakes of the Cold War have rarely felt so public: In Paris as his company prepares to fly to London, Nureyev goes to the airport with an accomplice, the French socialite Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos), who helps him to plan his next move.
For Nureyev, the stakes are personal. He fears the Soviets will put him in prison when he returns to Moscow, or worse, while the Soviet government worries mostly about appearances. It is a complex sequence of events, with a lot of moving parts, and Fiennes films it with ample suspense. Left with no alternative, Nureyev is unsure whom to trust, and the silent pressure of the situation builds inside everyone involved.
Aside from their physical similarities and shared cockiness, Ivenko as Nureyev can’t quite sell his character’s most disagreeable attributes. One dinner scene, during which Nureyev lashes out at a waiter and his dining companion, feels more arbitrary than dramatic.
Scenes that explore dance as a process are, in general, better. Beyond his obvious physical gifts, Nureyev approached ballet as an intellectual pursuit. Scenes in which he talks about the art form with Pushkin, Lacotte and others reveal the true spirit of “The White Crow.” As with many other films about dance, there’s a message here: Discipline and athleticism only go so far.
In the end credits, Fiennes includes grainy archival footage of the real Nureyev dancing. Undeniably beautiful, his lithe body bends in graceful, sumptuous ways. But his appearance here is a double-edged sword. Nureyev was the real deal, making Ivenko’s dance scenes seem rote by comparison. “Bohemian Rhapsody” suffered from the same problem: The facsimile of a singular artist always pales in comparison to the real thing.