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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
The White Crow (a Russian term for outlier) is Fiennes’ third film as a director, following Coriolanusand The Invisible Woman, in which he played, respectively, a soldier and an author (Charles Dickens). Both thrust him into the limelight. Nureyev is no exception. Fiennes, who discovered Julie Kavanagh’s 2007 Nureyev biography over a decade ago, uses only the first five chapters in his film about the dancer who played near every corner of the globe before dying of complications from AIDs in 1993. Working from a potent script by noted playwright and screenwriter David Hare (The Hours, The Reader), Fiennes gives his period drama a present-tense urgency that draws us into the life of Nureyev in the fascinating act of inventing himself.
Making the bold decision to cast a dancer in the role, figuring it would be impossible to teach an actor to dance like a master, Ukranian dancer Oleg Ivenko, a soloist at the Jalil Tatar Ballet Theater, brings just the right note of youthful energy and sexual swagger to the role, speaking in Russian and accented English, his eyes alert to every challenge and perceived threat. The ballet sequences, performed by Ivenko, Polunin and other dancers representing the Kirov company, are beautifully executed. What intrigues Fiennes as a filmmaker is the drive that keeps Nureyev going when forces build inexorably against him. He wants us to know Nureyev as a man.
Fiennes intercuts scenes — shot in widescreen monochrome — of Nureyev’s childhood poverty, including his birth on a Trans-Siberian train, to reveal his rigorous training by the state and his life as a have-not. Suspense and gut-clutching tension builds at the airport when Nureyev makes his decision to defect. Why did he do it? Fiennes offers no easy answers, mostly because Nureyev didn’t have any himself. On one side are the Russians, who order him home, ostensibly to receive an award from Premier Khrushchev, but more likely to hold him there as a virtual prisoner. On the other side is his ambition to succeed on a world stage. Fiennes makes the weight of the choice palpable. Part thriller, part meditation on life and art, part portrait of a man on a tightrope, Fiennes makes the result a thing of bruising beauty and an exhilarating gift.