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'The White Crow': Bravo, Ralph Fiennes!

Brilliant biopic brings dancer Rudolf Nureyev to life onscreen

Rating: R

Run time: 2 hours 7 minutes

Stars: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Oleg Ivenko

Director: Ralph Fiennes

In Ralph Fiennes’ beautifuly crafted The White Crow, the actor and third-time director turns his attention to the extraordinary early life of Rudolf Nureyev. The first Soviet artist to defect to the West during the Cold War, Rudy (as he was known to fans and critics alike) used his wild charisma and an unbending force of will to forge himself into the first international rock star in ballet history. Joining Fiennes in this biopic are the Oscar-nominated playwright and screenwriter Sir David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) and, as Nureyev, a Ukrainian dancer and acting newcomer named Oleg Ivenko.

Through a clever overlay of plot lines, Fiennes and Hare trace Nureyev's life from his dramatic birth in a trans-Siberian railway car through his hardscrabble childhood in the Soviet city of Ufa, where the shy young outcast earned his nickname, “The White Crow.” The film focuses on Nureyev's struggle to harness his raw talent to proper ballet technique, explores his insatiable appetite for all the fine arts, and culminates in a highly charged re-creation of his 1961 defection at Le Bourget airport outside Paris. Nureyev's motives, the film shows, were fueled not by political differences with the Soviet Union but rather his insistence that, artistically and personally, “I want to be free."

Ivenko has taken on a near-impossible task, to portray a world-renowned icon and artist, and he succeeds on several levels. Nureyev's aristocratic manner, his sly humor and his temperamental outbursts are all there, and the young actor also delivers a technically accurate dance portrait of Nureyev — down to his distinctive carriage, and his near-supernatural ability to suspend himself in midair. To capture Nureyev's charisma on film is perhaps even more challenging, and the young Ivenko delivers. Fiennes saw in the young actor the “X-factor,” as he put it. And I agree with the director in his assessment of the handsome Ivenko's cinematic allure: “The camera loves him."

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Filming classical ballet has defeated more than several other directors. Indeed, Fiennes revealed that his own initial idea of shooting the dance performances with both close-up and far shots did not succeed. He ordered retakes of the ballet sequences, so the audience sees full bodies performing, hewing to Fred Astaire's No. 1 rule for directors filming his own dance numbers.

Fiennes not only directs this work, he also portrays the much-heralded ballet teacher Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev's mentor. Fiennes gives us a beautifully delicate depiction of this gentleman's duality, how his sensitive yet fiercely focused teaching infused his pupils (Baryshnikov was his student as well) with a drive to discover themselves in their art, to go beyond steps to storytelling as a gateway to human emotion.

As a former ballerina with the New York City Ballet, I witnessed many of Rudy's groundbreaking performances from the wings and also from out front. I was honored to watch his process in our daily classes. It was a pleasure to see such an accurate portrayal of the painstaking work, dedication and singular focus needed to succeed in the ballet world. The White Crow is not only a fine dramatic work, skillfully rendered by Hare, but also an homage to an art form that has often been cinematically depicted in caricatures rather than accurate portrayals of a dancer's life.

Even if dance is not your cup of tea, The White Crow is an inspiringly beautiful biographical film that captures the creative influences and dramatic defection of a mysteriously powerful soul, the extraordinary artist Rudolf Nureyev.

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