Art and politics are uneasy bedfellows in The White Crow, David Hare’s story of ballet and defection, a directorial debut for Ralph Fiennes.
Ballet Boyby Sam Moore
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Art can mean a lot of things, and it can be used to show a lot of things. In John Logan’s play Red, the murals are representative of Rothko’s desire for life; in Black Swan, the ballet at the centre comes to reflect Nina’s increasingly fractured sense of identity. But in The White Crow, a drama about Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the West, ballet is only ever ballet, and this seemingly surface level of treatment of complex issues – a rarity for both Hare, and director Ralph Fiennes – ends up dragging the film down.
The story at the centre of The White Crow is interesting enough; a hot-headed ballet dancer with more talent than training rises up the ranks of his troupe until a certain degree of fame and fortune come his way. Spending time touring with the company, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the way life back home in the Soviet Union feels compared to the things he sees and people he meets in places like London and Paris. All of this comes to a head when Nureyev, convinced that he’ll be killed if he goes back to Moscow, plans to defect.
This is all compelling stuff, and Nureyev as played by Oleg Ivenko is always on the cusp of being fascinating, but in spite of an able performance, he’s let down by a script that refuses to engage with his contradictions in the detail that they deserve, and doesn’t interrogate the place or importance of his art in a way that shows it as being important enough to Nureyev that he’d defect for it. In the end, both Nureyev and his instructor Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes), conclude that it was always just about dancing, but that doesn’t come through with the clarity that it should.
The problem at the core of The White Crow is that it tries to be two films at once; a film about defection, and a film about ballet. Both of these constituents part are good to watch, something that stresses exactly how good Ivenko is at certain moments of the film. And the ballet sequences are electrifying to watch, camera and choreography working together as one. The issue from the sequences comes from the fact that the ballet sequences, superbly put together as they are, are only ballet sequences. They would be the ideal way for the two worlds of The White Crow to come together, but if anything it stresses the gap between them.
Nureyev’s journeys across Europe are a sign of not only the vastness of the world outside of the Soviet Union, but how they’re seen by someone for the first time. Churches, theatres, even restaurants are observed with something like wonder by Nureyev. But of course he’s torn in two different directions; the chip on his shoulder from his upbringing causes him to suspect the worst in people, and his arrogance about his abilities causes him to push people away.
Somewhere in The White Crow there’s a story about a man who is isolated in his country and among his peers, who finds solace and salvation in art, and defects so that he can keep it. Unfortunately, in spite of strong performances and a cinematic eye that’s electric at times, that film is buried somewhere in between the pieces that Hare has put together.
The White Crow premiered in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival on 18, 19 and 21 October 2018.