Cinematic Releases: The White Crow (2019) - Reviewed

In 1961, Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev came to Paris with his ballet company to perform for French audiences. The story of this trip is told in the biographical drama The White Crow (based on the 2007 non-fiction book Rudolf Nureyev: A Life by Julie Kavanagh). The biggest problem with the movie is that Nureyev comes off as completely unlikable. He is arrogant, selfish and mean. Despite flashbacks to his past that exist mainly to fill in the gaps and explain his journey, I never got a sense of him as anything other than a dancer. The result is dull and unfocused. That is a disappointment since the climax turned out to be legitimately enthralling. The White Crow does not totally build to it, except maybe indirectly, making its ending come off almost like a short film sequel to itself.

Nureyev is a driven young man, full of confidence, on the verge of stardom. While he is hungry for culture away from what he has always known, desiring to see the sights as well as meet the locals, his handlers attempt to keep him on a very short leash. This is ostensibly a character study. It just does not study that character nearly hard enough to make him interesting. The director is Ralph Fiennes (he also plays Nureyev’s teacher, Pushkin). This is his third movie in that role and he seems to struggle with maintaining a consistent narrative. He fails to get inside Nureyev’s head in a way that would assist audiences in understanding him. His protagonist remains an unpleasant enigma throughout.

The movie presents ballet as the single most important element in Nureyev’s life, yet it does not spend much time establishing that world. Part of that is because of the non-linear approach to the storytelling, which makes it difficult to follow his training. However, it never really dives in and provides insight into what these dancers are doing. What made this particular man such a big deal both in his profession and to his government? His passion and commitment come through, but what was so special that people were compelled to put up with his attitude? The White Crow does not answer those questions. I felt on the outside for most of the story.

The only section that feels like it actually knows what it is about is the final one. It involves Nureyev being forced to make a choice that will strongly impact his future. Fiennes successfully captures the emotions that go into this decision, using good framing, meaningful close-ups and dramatic cuts. It contains genuine tension and purpose. Since the rest of the story sort of meanders around his life as a ballet dancer, there is nothing for it to pay off. It is entirely satisfying on its own, without strengthening anything that came before it.

The White Crow is not effective enough at getting to the heart of who Rudolf Nureyev was to make the bulk of its running time engaging. He comes off as a self-important diva who treats everyone in his orbit with varying levels of contempt. The movie does little with that, making it a challenge to become invested in his story. One really good act is not quite enough to recommend it.

--Ben Pivoz