Rudolf Nureyev (1938-93) was not only one of the most celebrated ballet dancers of all time, but an icon of popular culture in the 1960s. His defection at Paris’s Le Bourget airport in June, 1961, at the height of the Cold War, was a major embarrassment for Soviet authorities who had sent the Mariinsky Ballet to France as a demonstration of “cultural supremacy”.
Today we would call the tour an exercise in “soft power”, but there was nothing especially pliant about the Soviet Union at that time. In April 1961 the stand-off between Russia and America would be brought to a flashpoint by the Bay of Pigs incident. By August construction commenced on the Berlin Wall.
The White Crow begins with a very timid, very bald Ralph Fiennes, in the role of ballet teacher, Alexander Pushkin, explaining to a government operative that Nureyev doesn’t have the sightest interest in politics. It seems his unfortunate defection was motivated solely by his desire to dance.
Perhaps what’s most startling about this scene is Fiennes speaking fluent Russian. Secondly, it’s ironic – and becomes more so as the film progresses – that this meek and mild character shares the same name as Russia’s great Romantic poet. It’s a long way from Fiennes’s first project as a director, in which he played the Shakespearean brute, Coriolanus.
Soon we’re into the first of a bewildering series of flashbacks and flashforwards as Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev is born on a train, near Irkutsk in Siberia. Fiennes, and writer, David Hare, send us back and forth through time on such a regular basis it’s like watching a science fiction movie.
Along with those scenes that hark back to Nureyev’s impoverished Siberian childhood we are taken through his early days at the Mariinsky Ballet, his rise through the ranks, and the fateful trip to Paris. At every stage we see Nureyev as a habitual non-conformist. Arrogant, stubborn, almost offensively confident in his own abilities, he is a problem child for a system that demands blind obedience. He is a “white crow” in that he always stands out from the crowd.
The role of Nureyev is played by first-timer, Oleg Ivenko, a young Russian ballet dancer who shares his subject’s good looks and physique. Ivenko has been criticised rather unfairly over his acting ability and the fact that he doesn’t seem to dance as well as Nureyev! Leaving aside the ludicrous second charge, it’s not that easy to make sweeping judgements about Ivenko’s acting when most of his lines are spoken in broken English, which is exactly what Nureyev spoke.
It was probably a much better idea to get a real Russian ballet dancer to play the role rather than an English-speaking actor with a phoney Russian accent and a dance double.
In Paris the Russians find Nureyev’s enthusiasm for French culture to be positively scary. He gets up early and waits outside the Louvre, so as to be first in to see Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, with its melodrama and tangle of muscular bodies. It’s one of several hints as to the dancer’s sexual preferences, but it’s not until late in the film that we get a clear view of Nureyev’s homosexuality.
Alongside his growing friendship with the French ballet dancers, the tour managers were getting nervous about Nureyev’s frequent visits to gay bars. Fiennes is a little reticent on this point, perhaps because he doesn’t want to spoil the flashback scenes of Pushkin’s wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), cuckholding her husband with the young dancer. He may also want us to believe there is a growing romance with the Parisian socialite, Clara Saint, played by a passive, withdrawn Adèle Exarchopoulos.
We’re gradually getting the idea about Nureyev’s tastes when suddenly one of the flashbacks finds him in bed with a male ballet student in Leningrad. Their banter suggests that Nureyev is more concerned with his own advancement than any form of human contact.
Clara comes to the same realisation but will still play a key role in assisting our hero’s defection. When a reporter asks: “Is this a Romeo and Juliet scenario?”, she replies: “Have you been dropped on your head?”
Nureyev would become a giant in the western ballet world, and a global celebrity, back in the days when most celebrities actually had to have some kind of talent. The White Crow shows us only the formative years, up until the age of 23, but it’s a portrait of a prodigy anticipating his own future greatness. It’s also a study in extreme self-centredness. This is not mere narcissism, it’s the kind of overarching selfishness one finds in those who see themselves as instruments of destiny.
We have to pause and remind ourselves that we’re talking about a ballet dancer, not a religious visionary or a revolutionary leader. It’s endearing when champions turn out to be modest people, but when we encounter a figure with such consummate faith in himself we tend to stand back and watch in awe. Even the mighty Soviet Union didn’t know what to do with Nureyev, and when they did decide they made the wrong call. He called himself an artist, they called him a traitor, but for the Russians, Nureyev was a problem they would never have been able to solve.
The White Crow
Directed by Ralph Fiennes
Written by David Hare, after a book by Julie Kavanagh
Starring Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Louis Hofmann, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin, Olivier Rabourdin, Raphaël Personnaz
UK/France/Serbia, rated M, 127 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 27 July, 2019