An eccentrically choreographed portrait of a great dancer.


My relatively modest rating for this film actually turns out to be a higher one than I had expected to give it when I started viewing - and that’s the case despite having approached Nureyev with the highest hopes. It is the work of David and Jacqui Morris who impressed me with their hard-hitting documentaries McCullin (2012) and Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime (2014). I may have been slightly surprised that they should now tackle a subject as different as Russia’s famed ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, but they had already proved themselves as accomplished filmmakers so I was anticipating something good. But in the event, Nureyev, a documentary portrait unlike any other, was a shock.


It starts with the sensible notion of putting the life of Nureyev (1938-1993) in a social and political context. Thus it underlines how ballet, long associated with the aristocracy, fell out of favour at the time of the Russian Revolution but gained fresh prestige in the Cold War years when Stalin and his successors saw it as a major political tool for asserting the supremacy of Russia over the West. In consequence, the country’s leading dancer, Nureyev, no less than Gagarin in his role as a famed cosmonaut, became a celebrity figure to be promoted worldwide until in Nureyev’s case he defected to the West in 1961. All of this fits neatly enough with the film offering us a chronicle of Nureyev’s life and doing so in chronological order.


What startles (and not in a good way) is the decision to tell at least half of the tale against stylised pictures of dancers, the images often intercut with historical footage from silent cinema and the like and with superimpositions added as well. That alone might distract from any value in using dance to re-enact Nureyev’s history, but it is rendered even more absurd by having such images accompanied by two additional features on the soundtrack: we hear comments from people giving their recollections of Nureyev and there are also readings from his memoirs. Far from creating richness, bringing together all these elements makes for an infuriating blend that leaves one perplexed because it is too much to take in all at once.


Just when this style had made the film a write-off as far as I was concerned (it’s not impossible that there will be some who will be enchanted rather than irritated by all this), the film moves on to deal with the deep bond between Nureyev and his older dancing partner Margot Fonteyn. At this point, the film becomes more straightforward and largely abandons its elaborate style: the gain is immense. This remarkable relationship with Fonteyn really does come across and, if not quite to the same extent, so do the scenes concerned with the love affair between Nureyev and his fellow dancer Erik Bruhn. The fact that Nureyev pretentiously inserts written quotations at intervals (they start with Napoleon Bonaparte and take in the likes of Shakespeare, Yeats, Picasso and our own dear queen) seems consistent with its misguidedly over-ambitious approach. Nevertheless, by the end one does feel that beneath its tiresome surface the film has captured more of the man than one might have expected.




Featuring  Grace Jabbari, Marlon Dino, Dana Fouras, Marta Fonseca, Adam Kirkham and the voices of Pierre Lacotte, Sian Phillips, Clement Crisp and Leslie Caron.


Dir David Morris and Jacqui Morris, Pro Jacqui Morris, Screenplay David Morris and Jacqui Morris, Ph Michael Wood, Pro Des Darko Petrovic, Ed David Fairhead, Tim Moss and Sean Mackenzie, Music Alex Barfanowski, Costumes Stevie Stewart.


Frith Street Films-Universal Pictures.
109 mins. UK. 2018. Rel: 25 September 2018. Cert. 12A.