By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“The White Crow” is so-so which, given what it’s trying to do, is almost a rave.
Some geniuses seem replicable on film. I’ve bought versions of Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe. And Elvis. But I’m not so sure how I’d do with a Brando or a Hepburn (Katharine or Audrey).
Or a Rudolph Nureyev. It’s not just the dancing, which in itself seems close to impossible, but also the charisma. And the cheekbones.
And the aura.
There have been other great ballet dancers, even other great Russian defectors (Baryshnikov, anyone?). But in his time, the early 1960s through the early 1990s, Nureyev seemed to breathe different air from mere mortals. Bad-boy attitude and calf muscles you could bounce a dime off of can do that for someone.
In “The White Crow,” Nureyev is played by Ukrainian dancer, Oleg Ivenko, here making his film debut. To his credit, he is often an facsimile. The cheekbones are pretty close and, for the average moviegoer, his leaps and twirls certainly seem in the ballpark.
The picture focuses on Nureyev’s early years — his training under maestro Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes, who also directed) and his life-changing visit to Paris in 1961when he escaped his KGB handlers and jetted from East to West, amidst much Cold War uproar.
In Russia, a white crow is somewhat analogous to our black swan, i.e., something or someone unusual and typically impossible to predict. From the moment he’s introduced, we know Nureyev is special; we know he knows he’s special, too.
Hence his insistence he be trained by Pushkin, who usually worked with more experienced dancers. Or how, when his company arrives in Paris, he’s the first to break barriers, hanging out with Westerners and taking early-morning visits to the Louvre to stare at the well-muscled bodies in “The Raft of the Medusa.”
Arrogance is central to his talent. Told he’s not going to dance on Opening Night, he shrugs, “Don’t worry. It’s not going to take long until everyone knows who I am.”
Similarly, after a performance, a French balletomane asks him if he had danced that evening and Rudy sneers, “If I had danced, you would remember.”
The movie glances at his impoverished childhood, his bi-sexual adventures, his determination and his ambition. But screenwriter David Hare can’t quite figure out how to tie it all together.
Things get more scattered in the second half when the picture gets more political. It eventually builds up to that crucial moment in the airport when Nureyev must decide whether he should go back to Russia to dance for Nikita Khrushchev (Nyet) or seek asylum from the Paris cops just a few steps away (Da).
Fiennes’ direction is a bit like his character – classy and restrained, as if swathed in a sweater vest (as Pushkin usually is. But again, that he has even tried to capture the electrifying storm that was Nureyev in his prime is somehow worthwhile.
“The White Crow” is one of those films that may not entirely work, but also one you’d rather have seen than not.