Widely regarded as the greatest male ballet dancer of the twentieth century, Rudolf Nureyev took possession of the stage with an energy that seemed almost supernatural. When he leapt on stage, he seemed weightless, almost levitating midair before finally giving in to the demands of gravity. Fifty years have passed since he performed at the Muny with Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet of London, but I still recall him as one of the most charismatic performers I've ever seen on a stage, his only major competition being Ziggy-era Bowie.
Trying to recreate Nureyev's commanding presence on screen is no small task, but Ralph Fiennes and writer David Hare face the challenge with considerable success in The White Crow, a dramatization of the dancer's early years that culminates with his decision to leave the Soviet Union in 1961 — an event one of his teachers calls "an explosion of character."
According to most accounts, Nureyev came from a humble background (as the film shows, he was born on a train, the youngest of four children in a military family). He started his dance training fairly late, but quickly rose to a prominent position in Leningrad's Kirov Ballet. In the film's account, Nureyev found his own meteoric rise both completely predictable and a bit too slow for his taste. The White Crow is less the story of Nureyev's struggle than of his ambition, and his impatience with any person or institution that failed to recognize his talent.
The film flips through different periods in Nureyev's life from his childhood to the start of his career in Leningrad to, finally and most significantly, his first trip to the West, when the Kirov troupe begins a tour of Paris and London. The shifts in time aren't always clear, and sometimes the only hint as to which period we're in comes from a subtle color scheme (saturated, almost colorless shades for his childhood, earthy browns and greens for his performing youth and gaudy pastel blues for Paris), which helps set the tone for the dancer's emotional journey.
In only his third film as director, Fiennes (who also plays one of Nureyev's teachers) shows a strong eye for creating dramatic landscapes. Much of the film simply follows Nureyev as he walks alone through the streets of Paris, enjoying his solitude and the environment. The back-and-forth time zones threaten to become trivial, but Fiennes and Hare ultimately let them settle down, turning the film's last half hour into a kind of Cold War suspense films in which all three threads collide.
Fiennes is also well-served by his lead actor. Trying to duplicate Nureyev's imposing demeanor is no small task, and if Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko can't entirely match Nureyev's physical magnetism, he makes up for it in sheer confidence. His Nureyev is disarmingly self-absorbed, never showing a shred of doubt about his talent. In Hare's script, Nureyev's passion for dance manifests itself as a kind of stubbornness, an indifference to others. As he's seduced by the glamor and decadence of Paris, he becomes increasingly irrational and unpredictable.
By the time Nureyev faces the emotional crisis that leads to the film's climactic confrontation, Ivenko has let his guard down, allowing the film to reveal a weaker side behind the dancer's cockiness. Faced with the difficulty of duplicating one of the most forceful personalities of the modern era, Ivenko, Hare and Fiennes recreate enough of Nureyev's character and emotions to remind us why he mattered.