Oleg Ivenko’s portrayal of Rudolf Nureyev in The White Crow is austere and unsmiling

The White Crow. The Electric Cinema, Birmingham

Perhaps it was that freezing Siberian childhood as Oleg Ivenko’s portrayal of Rudolf Nureyev in The White Crow is austere and unsmiling. He does make a joke with his recently bereaved friend Clara Saint that his dancing is more effective for her depression than Prozac but in an unsmiling performance the main impression of Nureyev’s character is of a man with a single-mindedness of purpose. And that purpose was to be a creative classical ballet dancer.

At over two hours it is too long with scenes and a story that could have been shortened as it is too slow. You find yourself wishing it would speed up to its climax in France and Nureyev’s defection.

What Ralph Fiennes does very well is to give the story layers of visual revelation to show the background to Nureyev’s life and moments of inspiration for his work as a choreographer and artistic director. Set in the present tense set in Paris ahead of his defection the story spans life in the Soviet Union and 1960s France offering a contrast between rich and poor, Communism and Capitalism, artistic freedom and stifling authoritarianism.

The dancing and in particular the practice sequences are brilliant, in part due to their authenticity as the director used dancers as actors instead of the other way around. Some critics have spoken of the acting as wooden – a cheap shot – as they knew Oleg Ivenko was a first time movie actor. All dancers are also actors – a point missed – and Ivenko was more than adequate for the role. Sergei Polunin as Nureyev’s Kirov colleague Yuri Soloviev gives strong support, as does Adèle Exarchopoulos as socialite and rescuer Clara Saint, and Ralph Fiennes not only directs but as Nureyev’s dance teacher Alexander Pushkin, but has to turn a blind eye to his wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) having an affair with the dancer under his nose.

Based on Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Nureyev, adapted by David Hare, the film reveals a selfish, highly focused and ambitious dancer who knows he’s a star. His lack of charm and rudeness to those he loved would be enough to make us be repelled but his dramatic escape into the arms of the French police gives the film an exciting climax and was easily the most gripping part of what in essence captures a revealing episode in the Cold War.

Harry Mottram

Reviewed: April 6, 2019

The Electric is a cinema opened in Station Street in 1909, showing its first silent film on 27th December of that year, and is now the oldest working cinema in the country. It predates its namesake, the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, London, by around two months.