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Review: The White Crow (2019)

The White Crow (2019)

Directed by: Ralph Fiennes

Premise: Based on true events. In the 1950s, Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) performs in Paris. He encounters Western ideas and increasingly rebels against his Russian handler’s efforts to restrict his behavior.

What Works: The White Crow is a complex story about the tension between artists and the audience. Rudolf Nureyev was a ballet dancer who emerged from the Soviet Union, a repressive society that valued the interests of the state over the needs of the individual and pursued those interests to murderous extremes. As depicted in this film, Nureyev wanted to be the best dancer and his drive and self-interest were at odds with the collectivism of the Soviet Union. Nureyev was also, as depicted here, very difficult to get on with. Throughout this film, Nureyev acts like a brat. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that they do not soften Nureyev’s character. He is often cruel and impatient and selfish to the people around him but the film also links those negative character traits to the drive and focus that made Nureyev among the best ballet dancers of his generation. His difficult persona is also, at least in part, linked to his need to escape the repression of Soviet communism. The White Crow is largely about the mounting pressure on Nureyev from his own standards of performance, from the needs of the dance company, and from the cultural push and pull between the West and the Soviet Union. The filmmakers effectively portray Nureyev’s deepening paranoia as government officials behave suspiciously and seek to contain his art. Dance becomes an ideal metaphor for this conflict. The freedom of movement inherent to dance as well as Nureyev’s bisexuality contrast with the restrictions of Soviet communism. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of The White Crow. Nureyev and his dance troupe were subsidized by the state and he wanted to be the best at what he did. That should have resulted in a mutual interest between the dancer and his country but Nureyev’s drive to be the best necessarily involved a commitment to himself and to his art that eclipsed his commitment to the state. This film is a consideration of what artists owe society—if anything—in pursuit of excellence in their field. 

What Doesn’t: The White Crow never concretizes the threat that Nureyev faces. Viewers who know the history of the Soviet Union will understand this intellectually and several characters suggest the danger to Nureyev’s life but the potential consequences are not made literal within the drama of the film. When the conflict of The White Crow reaches its peak matters are resolved in a way that is anticlimactic. There is terrific tension leading up to the decisive moment but the falling action and resolution of The White Crow are quite abrupt. The film doesn’t draw out the drama of the climax, in part because the facts and circumstances don’t really allow for it.

DVD extras: Featurette, interviews.

Bottom Line: The White Crow tells the story of Rudolf Nureyev in a way that is thoughtful and dramatic. The movie offers a complicated portrait of the man and then sets the artist’s struggles against a broader political background.

Episode: #777 (November 24, 2019)