Jumpy narrative kills The White Crow

Ralph “Ray” Fiennes directs and stars in this biographical drama about the world’s most famous male ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, which is based on the book Rudolf Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh. 

Nureyev, played by Oleg Ivenko, is depicted as a fiercely driven dancer who was interesting but insolent and, though not technically perfect, was praised for the rich emotion he imbued his performances with. 

The White Crow recounts three different stages of Nureyev’s early life: his childhood in the Soviet Union where he grew up in a poor family; his formative years training as a dancer at the prestigious Leningrad choreographic school, where he was taken under the wing of his dance teacher and mentor, Pushkin; and his rise to fame with the Kirov group as a principal dancer (in France in the 1960s), where he developed an unquenchable thirst for Parisian art and culture and finds himself in hot water with the KGB.

The film’s undoing is that the narrative jumps around between these three life stages. Visually, the latter two periods are not clearly differentiated and the jumbled chronology makes it unnecessarily difficult to follow the timeline and the growth of Nureyev’s character and his relationships. 

Nureyev’s romantic relationships (both same-sex and heterosexual), and the shift in the power dynamic between Pushkin and Nureyev, could’ve been fascinating to watch, but the story flits around too much to clearly show how they played out and they wind up feeling like loose ends.

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On occasion, the sequence of events is used effectively to draw links between Nureyev’s upbringing and the keen interest in art that he develops later in life. More notably though, and to its detriment, the non-linear order crams all of The White Crow’s real action into the film’s second half. By the time anything interesting happens, it feels like a case of too little, too late.

It’s a curious arrangement and one that makes the entire first hour of the film a relatively uneventful slog, which will definitely have you scratching your head as to why The White Crow is over two hours long.

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The White Crow’s main man, Ivenko, is a dancer and you’d never guess that this is his acting debut. He does a sterling job as spitting, arrogant Nureyev. He may not elevate this film as well as say Taron Egerton elevated Rocketman, but he successfully draws you into his complex character who combines passion with petulance. 

Fienne’s (who reluctantly starred in the film when it needed some star power to secure additional funding) plays an excellent gentle mentor and Chulpan Khamatova does the best she can with a limited script as his wife Xenia, who becomes one of the film’s more riveting supporting characters. The rest of the cast is fine, but not particularly noteworthy.

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The White Crow is a beautiful looking film, featuring gorgeous old French buildings, dance studios replicated in their entirety and nice costuming. Surprisingly though, one thing that doesn’t translate well through the screen is the supposed raw emotion that Nureyev’s dancing should rightfully evoke. It’s referred to, at length, throughout the film, but at the conclusion of Nureyev’s performances, when his audiences were wowed and even crying, nothing really resonated.

There’s a nice scene where Pushkin is teaching Nureyev that dancing is about storytelling and finding the emotion behind the technique. “What does it have to say?” he asks him.

For better or for worse, when The White Crow ends, you’ll be asking the same question.

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SEE IT if…

You have an appreciation for art, ballet, politics and history

or

You’re a Nureyev fan

SKIP IT if…

Comedy is your genre

or

You’re not ready for an eyeful of full-frontal male nudity

It gets 2 stars out of 5.

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