I shall fight fear.
While I don’t know anything about ballet, I am familiar with Soviet defection. Being a Buffalonian whose hometown hockey favorite as a kid was Alexander Mogilny means I must. It helps then that director Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare (inspired by Julie Kavanagh‘s book Rudolf Nureyev: The Life) start their film The White Crow at its end rather than beginning. By sitting Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin (Fiennes) down across from a not so composed government official to answer the pressing question of why his star pupil would defect to Europe, we’re instantly made aware of why Rudolf Nureyev’s (Oleg Ivenko) story provides dramatic intrigue. You don’t therefore need to know him or care about his art. This story is about ownership, talent, and above all else: freedom.
That’s a good thing since Rudi is a very difficult character to like. He’s selfish, domineering, and entitled—things his genius has apparently overshadowed considering his eventual self-anointed position as the face of the USSR’s St Petersburg-based Kirov Ballet Academy during their Parisian tour. The way he dismisses those who are his friends and rejects authority when it’s not given on his terms (Pushkin was pretty much hand-picked as his teacher after despising the first one to which he was assigned) is inexcusable. It’s therefore ironic that he was taught under a communist regime more interested in the greater good provided by performance than the headache of dealing with him as a unique individual. Had he grown in America, he probably would have been kicked out day one.
It’s a struggle then to ever really embrace Nureyev as someone worth our time beyond the historical implications of the defection itself. We want to care about him as a person and yet every chance it appears we have to do so is negated by a power move that can be described as nothing but the temper tantrum of a spoiled brat with a chip on his shoulder. We want to understand why the people around him remain by his side beyond his artistic merit, but I think that is all he has. Any desire to assist him on his journey to stardom is thus a product of people seeing what he can do on-stage despite what they experience of him off it. But being poor doesn’t excuse arrogance.
I do believe Fiennes realizes this fact. Rather than try and soften those hard edges, he leans into them with an unapologetic attitude to put the contradictions of Rudi’s upbringing front and center. The film does this by interweaving three disparate periods in his life: the present while on tour in Paris, the past while training under Pushkin in the USSR, and the distant past (in black and white with a narrower aspect ratio than the rest) as a boy in Ufa, far away from the big city. We’re shown how communism supplied this peasant the tools to become a great dancer, how compassion helped him stay the course, and how his penchant for isolation drove away those who loved him without ever extinguishing that love.
The list of those he figuratively spits in the face of includes the man who taught him English (Louis Hofmann‘s Teja), his dance roommate (Sergei Polunin‘s Yuri), Pushkin’s wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) who single-handedly ensured his health to get through training and earn his shot under the bright lights, and the wealthy socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos) who accompanied him around Paris the five weeks he was there. These are the people who paved the way for Rudi to possess what it took to make as much of an impression in public as he did performing on-stage. They gave him the tools to become that which his birth didn’t. And despite a state-sponsored education placing company and country first, he inevitably became an objectivist caring only about himself.
I won’t deny the entertainment value of such a contrast, especially with Nureyev’s handler Strizhevsky (Aleksey Morozov) constantly lurking in the background with a grin. This man gives him enough rope to hang himself because he knows any less would alienate, anger, and risk the end we already know occurs. While Ivenko’s moves at the theater are shot without cuts to showcase his real-life talent, the dance he performs with Morozov is more memorable due to the fireworks being lit under both their chairs. Each believes he has the upper hand because Rudi knows his worth to the USSR and Strizhevsky knows the potency of his genuine threats. Who then will push the other too far first? Who crosses the line for which there can be no return?
That is the purpose of the story after all: How and why did the defection go down? That it takes two-plus hours to get there will ultimately feel too long for stretches removed from this conclusion. Fiennes has thankfully assembled an excellent team to pass that time with, though, since the period aesthetics are enjoyable enough to remain engaged. The acting is impeccable, the matter-of-fact twists and turns of Rudi’s sex life are shown devoid of almost all drama to simply exist as truth, and a lot of the dialogue is in Russian (Fiennes’ lines too) so as not to fall prey to the usual knock of a European taking a foreign story from its native environment and tongue. We are transported to 1950s Russia and 1961 Paris.
I only wish Rudi the man was as interesting as this single life event. His history may contextualize said event, but it can’t excuse his personality. In the end The White Crow becomes a contradiction wherein the traits that make him abhorrent prove to be the ones that allow him to excel and know when his paranoia of the KGB is founded. I’m glad Fiennes didn’t gloss over Nureyev’s repugnant nature, though, since doing so would have allowed us to blindly commend his individuality as a dagger to the heart of communism. Letting his character alienate his audience instead is a bold move that doesn’t quite work beyond cementing the general complexity of what it meant to perform under hammer and sickle, but I’d rather imperfection than revisionist pandering.
 Center: Oleg Ivenko as Rudolf Nureyev Photo by Larry Horrocks. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
 Left: Ralph Fiennes as Alexander Pushkin Photo by Larry Horrocks. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
 Left to right: Oleg Ivenko as Rudolf Nureyev, Adèle Exarchopoulosas as Clara Saint Photo by Jessica Forde. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.