The White Crow

2019-06-14 07:06
 
Oleg Ivenko in a scene from 'The White Crow'.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

The true story of Rudolf Nureyev, an acclaimed soviet ballet dancer who, in the early 1960s, defected to the West after the KGB viewed his behaviour during a successful tour in Paris as seditious and a betrayal of communist values. Nowhere more so than in his increasingly intimate relationship with the "aristocratic" Clara Saint, who introduces him to a world far livelier and freer than anything her has ever known.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

It’s hardly unheard of for a film to be less than the sum of its parts, but it’s hard to think of a film in recent memory with such excellent constituent parts adding up to a massively frustrating and unsatisfying whole.

Ralph Fiennes has yet to fully translate his exceptional skills as an actor into his still fairly nascent career as a director (Coriolanus did nothing to make palatable one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously difficult plays, while the Invisible Woman was ultimately handsomely mounted but unremarkable) but he clearly understands how things work behind the camera. Fiennes impresses in individual scenes and handles the film’s changing tones with no small amount of finesse. Assisted ably by veteran cinematographer Mike Eley, he does as fine a job capturing the dance sequences as he does the film’s tense climax as he does the quieter, more intimate moments.

Fiennes has also assembled an impressive international cast with some top-notch supporting turns from Adèle Exarchopoulos as the alluring Clara Saint and Fiennes himself as Nureyev’s weak-willed ballet instructor, Pushkin. Oleg Ivenko, though, is the rightful star here. He portrays Nureyev’s mix of likeable charm, arrogance and naivete perfectly and, as a professional dancer with no small amount of acclaim himself, he nails the breathtaking ballet scenes. Seriously, how does he float like that? 

There’s also not too much to complain about screenwriter (working off Julie Kavanagh’s book, Rudolph Nureyev: The Life) David Hare’s steady hand with dialogue or his ability to really dig below the surface of the man known as the "first ballet pop-superstar"and to ensure that even the more minor supporting players have clearly defined personalities. As for Nureyo’s story, however, fictionaliSed it may be here (not overly as these things go, apparently), it’s compelling enough and is buoyed tremendously by Hare never losing sight of the most interesting thing about it: Nureyev himself.

So far, so very good. Unfortunately, for a film about something as graceful as ballet, the White Crow is astonishingly clumsy and plodding overall. The decision to tell this story through a flashback structure that constantly shifts between Nureyev’s “present” and his years training and coming of age in Russia may have worked on paper as a way to highlight the stark contrast between the bleakness of Nureyev’s past and the bright future that awaits him, but in execution it singlehandedly sinks the film.

Part of the problem is that the dour and often dull vision of his past doesn’t simply contrast against Nureyev’s “present”, but it constantly undermines it. The "present-day" sequences are never allowed to build on one another because every time it feels like they’re starting to build a proper rhythm, the film comes to a shrieking stop every time it cuts to the past, which it does regularly if haltingly. Worse, the stuff that happens in the flashbacks is, without fail, much less interesting than Nureyev’s adventures in Paris and, surprisingly, don’t actually add anything in terms of character or plot development. Individual flashbacks may work, but the cumulative effect is that the White Crow looks like an eighty-minute movie stretched out to over two hours by the addition of extraneous back story being inserted at random into the main narrative of the film.

There are enough fantastic individual scenes and certainly more than enough talent both behind and in front of the camera to suggest that a recut and remixed version of the White Crow could be something truly special. In this form, though, it’s an aggravating mess that I can’t even cautiously recommend despite all the things that are so, so good about it – of which there are many.



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