The White Crow




2018's controversial documentary Nureyev is followed by a drama about the dancer which is no less divisive.

The White Crow

Ralph Fiennes and Oleg Ivenko


Although this film claims to have been inspired by Julie Kavanagh's biography of the celebrated dancer Rudolf Nureyev, it finds the writer of the screenplay, David Hare, taking a relatively narrow focus. It is built around what happened in 1961 when Nureyev was in Paris dancing with the Kirov ballet and opted to ask for political asylum in the West. Consequently, the film ignores his subsequent career but, after an opening scene that is indeed set in 1961, it looks back on his earlier life. This establishes Nureyev as a natural rebel from his infant days onwards reacting against discipline and tradition. It was being hemmed in artistically by the Russian authorities rather than any major preoccupation with political issues as such which would cause him to defect and it is those pressures that are central to this film.


By choosing this emphasis the film minimises the element of dance which may disappoint audiences who expect stage performances to play an important role here - for that matter they may be surprised that English dialogue is minimal and that The White Crow is in essence a subtitled film. None of that bothers me, but I am concerned that this, the third feature to be directed by Ralph Fiennes, finds him handling it so maladroitly. It is a fault linked to the fact that David Hare's screenplay disrupts the flow and occasionally confuses too by moving back and forth between three settings: Paris in 1961, scenes that show Nureyev as a young dancer in Russia and frequent reminders, often arbitrary, of his childhood years there. It may or may not be a coincidence that The Invisible Woman (2013) also found Fiennes as director plagued by a narrative that kept jumping around in time. What is certain is that Fiennes must take full responsibility for what is the most disruptive element in these flashbacks: he chooses to switch ratio for the childhood scenes (he uses a miniaturised version of the 'Scope format leaving black spaces above and below the picture and in addition chooses to have them photographed mainly, but not exclusively, in black and white). Every time this happens, any suspension of disbelief is destroyed by the intrusiveness of the technique.


There are other flaws, too. The ill-chosen title has to be explained to make sense (it was a nickname meaning an extraordinary person, an outsider, which was applied to Nureyev early on, but few people will know that). In contrast, the climactic scene at the airport (will Nureyev defect or not?) is somewhat undermined by our being aware of the outcome. After that the film stutters on unnecessarily for a handful of scenes while earlier, when choosing to touch on sexual matters (we see depicted one heterosexual relationship and one gay one), the film's approach is decidedly superficial. The dancer Oleg Ivenko who plays Nureyev if not his equal in the dance scenes does come over strongly and has something of his looks too, and indeed I know of some people much more favourable to this film than I am as well as others who share my misgivings. To end on a positive note about Fiennes, he has a supporting role as Nureyev's teacher Alexander Pushkin. This is his second Russian-speaking role following on from 2014's Two Women and his performance, quiet but assured, is splendidly effective.




Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Chulpan Khamatova, Ralph Fiennes, Alexey Morozov, Raphaël Personnaz, Olivier Rabourdin, Ravshana Kurkova, Louis Hofmann, Sergei Polunin, Andrey Urgant.


Dir Ralph Fiennes, Pro Carolyn Marks Blackwood, François Ivernel, Andrew Levitas, Gabrielle Tana and Ralph Fiennes, Ex Pro Liam Neeson, Screenplay David Hare, inspired by the book Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh, Ph Mike Eley, Pro Des Anne Seibel, Ed Barney Pilling, Music Ilan Eshkeri, Costumes Madeline Fontaine.


BBC Films/HanWay Films/Metakwork Pictures/Lonely Dragon/Magnolia Mae Films-StudioCanal.
127 mins. UK/Serbia/USA. 2019. Rel: 22 March 2019. Cert. 12A.