The White Crow movie review: nothing to crow about

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The White Crow yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Elegant but dull, and so subtle it’s downright diffuse. If you don’t know much about Rudolf Nureyev going in, you won’t know much coming out, either. Weirdly, it doesn’t even feature much dancing.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

In Paris in 1961, while on tour with the Kirov Ballet, Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West. It was a signal moment in the Cold War, but The White Crow, Ralph Fiennes’s third film as director (his previous was 2013’s The Invisible Woman), isn’t concerned with the aftermath: this is all about what led to it. Except it’s not terribly enlightening in that regard. The tense defection sequence — set at Paris’s Le Bourget airport and replete with the gripping jockeying of KGB agents and French police, all worthy of a spy thriller — is when the film finally springs to passionate life. But that doesn’t come until the last few minutes of this elegant but mostly dull endeavor… which is no spoiler if you’re not aware of what young Nureyev was about to do, because the film opens with his ballet teacher, Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes, in a small role), attempting to grapple with the news of his student’s unexpected act of defiance. “He had an explosion of character,” Pushkin guesses.

It’d be nice if the film bothered with even any minor firecrackers of character till that moment. David Hare’s (Denial, The Reader) anemic script — based on the biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, by Julie Kavanagh — is structured as a series of flashbacks within flashbacks depicting Nureyev’s impoverished but loving childhood and his teen years as a dance student in Leningrad. But the bulk of the film has Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) wandering prettily around Paris, eating at cafés, befriending the locals — primarily socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos: Blue Is the Warmest Color) — and generally being a generic, tedious, arrogant jerk the likes of which we’re used to seeing male artists depicted as, with approval. If you don’t know much about Nureyev going into this movie, you won’t know much coming out, either.

The White Crow Oleg Ivenko
You’d think a movie about ballet would lead to dancing, but not so much, actually…

The key issue here, though, given what The White Crow is attempting: It’s never clear why his KGB handlers are so worried about Nureyev. Sure, he doesn’t like following rules and strains at the short leash the touring dancers are kept on. But he hardly appears to be any sort of threat to the Soviet Union — he’s not agitating politically or even hinting that he might embarrass his homeland. The KGB’s decision to send him back to Moscow instead of on to London with the rest of the Kirov comes out of nowhere, even with the earlier warning he’d gotten about his behavior, as does Nureyev’s immediate decision to defect. If you didn’t already know this was coming, it would feel like narrative whiplash, so much context for it is missing. This is a film so subtle it’s downright diffuse.

What’s also missing here? Ballet. There’s barely any dancing here, which is… bizarre, given the film’s insistence on how that’s all Nureyev is interested in, never mind his reputation as one of the greatest dancers ever. “If I had danced, you would remember,” he tells an audience member in Paris after a performance in which he does not appear. Sorta sums up The White Crow, too.

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