The White Crow. A film from Ralph Fiennes

I remember how much I enjoyed reading Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Rudolf Nureyev—Nureyev. The Life published in 2007. It was so beautifully researched and very readable. So the recently released ‘biopic’ The White Crow, which was inspired by Kavanagh’s book, had something to live up to for me. Well, despite a swag of less that ecstatic reviews from film critics around the world, I loved this movie. Directed by Ralph Fiennes, it follows the early life of Rudolf Nureyev, from his birth until his defection to the West in 1961.

As this is a dance site I am assuming that readers are aware of the basic outline of Nureyev’s early life so I won’t recount the story. Instead I am selecting moments, some that brought me close to tears, some that made me smile, and some that, despite knowing what was going to happen, had me the edge of my seat. And others.

I was moved when Nureyev’s mother, Farida, was about to give birth on the train rattling its way through the Russian countryside. Her daughters stood in the corridor, shielded from the birth but hearing the groans and shrieks coming from their mother. The smallest of the daughters had tears in her eyes— such a beautiful moment from such a little girl. It brought me close to tears.

Another moment connected with Farida also moved me. Nureyev, sitting alone in the office of the French Police Department at Le Bourget Airport, had to decide which door to take to leave the office. Would he leave via the back door and choose freedom, or would he leave through the main door, back into the hands of the Soviet representatives? They had told him, amongst other things, that he would never see his mother again if he chose freedom. We knew, of course, which door he would choose, but nevertheless, the tension throughout the airport scenes was gripping. As we sat there waiting for him to make his decision, however, the filmed location changed. We were transported back to Ufa, where Nureyev grew up and where he took his first dance lessons. In this flashback the young Nureyev entered the Ufa studio and his teacher asked his mother to leave. The young Nureyev began to dance a folk dance—it was performed so well by a little boy playing Nureyev aged eight or so. But as Farida disappeared down the corridor we knew that the choice had been made way back there in Ufa.

The scene in the dance studio was not the only time the film flashed back to Nureyev’s earlier life. I found these flashbacks, which were in black and white rather than the colour of the main footage, quite mesmerising. They were evocative and developed the storyline in an inspired way.

In the movie I really enjoyed meeting Clara Saint played by Adèle Exarchopoulos. As the woman who befriended Nureyev and then was instrumental in facilitating his defection, she has always seemed a mysterious character. She was somewhat mysterious, or perhaps reserved in personality, in this movie too but it was interesting to have a three dimensional reading of her.

Fiennes, the director, played Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s main teacher at the Kirov school and the man who, with his wife, accommodated Nureyev in their St Petersburg apartment during a momentous time in his early dancing life in St Petersburg. Fiennes’ portrayal was restrained and it was hard to know what he really thought of any situation in which he found himself. I had to wonder why he didn’t react a little more strongly to his wife’s sexual relationship with Nureyev, which was made very clear to us. But then maybe the real Pushkin didn’t mind?

Oleg Ivenko, a dancer himself, played the grown up Nureyev and we saw some respectable dancing from him. I couldn’t help but think, however, that his dancing owed a lot to Nureyev whose approach, all those years ago now, to turns, jumps, manèges and the like changed the look of male dancing forever. Having said that, it was interesting to see Nureyev himself in the credits (in dancing footage that had been reduced to minuscule size) and to realise that his technique was really quite raw in many ways.

And the moment that made me smile? After negotiating his way through the crowd at Le Bourget, not to mention managing the ongoing harassment of the Soviet representatives, Nureyev finally reached the office of the Police Department. ‘Do you have a cognac?’, he asked. And of course, being French, they did.

A film well worth seeing!

Michelle Potter, 30 July 2019

My most recent writing on Nureyev was for the printed program for the 2018 visit to Brisbane by Teatro all Scala from Milan. Here is a link to that article.

5 thoughts on “The White Crow. A film from Ralph Fiennes

  1. Lovely review, I thought the cinema photography was superb, beautiful shots of Siberia in Winter and also St. Petersburg and Paris. I loved all the costuming and attention to detail too.
    I’m going to read the biography now!

  2. Thanks for your comment Jessica. Yes, I loved the various landscapes and cityscapes too. Some were the background for quite moving moments. Watching Farida trekking out into the snow pulling a sled behind her so early in the morning in a search for food for her children was a poignant moment, for example. And then seeing the child Nureyev left by his father in the forest was a little disturbing. I loved too seeing the Hermitage and the huge square in which it sits. So there certainly was a lot to enjoy in addition to the story itself.

    Enjoy the book!

  3. I totally agree with you about this film. I read the book some time ago and was really looking forward to the film. It did display much of the turmoil in Nureyev’s life, but nothing about his great love affair with the other dancer whose name escapes me. Maybe that was after the defection.

  4. You might mean Wallace Potts? It was late 1960s that they met, so yes, after the defection. Although, come to think of it, he wasn’t a dancer.

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