Voldemort aside, actor Ralph Fiennes has taken on some silly roles in his time. He was the voice of the butler in The Lego Batman Movie; a wacky concierge in The Grand Budapest Hotel; a put-upon director in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!; and the god of the underworld, which sounds solemn until you realize it was in Clash of the Titans.
As a director, however, he is deadly serious. He has made a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (2011), a biopic of Charles Dickens’ mistress (2013’s The Invisible Woman), and now The White Crow, which tells the story of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, played by Ukrainian dancer-turned-actor Oleg Ivanko.
Nureyev fans in Toronto already had a chance to see a documentary about him last month at the Hot Docs cinema. The White Crow opens on the famous story of his 1938 birth in a trans-Siberian railway car, and includes some messy and unnecessary flashbacks to his childhood, but spends most of its time in 1961 Paris. (Wouldn’t you too?)
The short version of the story is that the 23-year-old arrived in the French capital on May 12, spent the next month soaking up decadent Western culture – burlesque shows but also Notre Dame and Romantic art in the Louvre – and on June 16 defected in the airport terminal in front of his affronted Soviet handlers.
Fiennes fleshes out the story with a variety of romantic entanglements as well as Nureyev’s bizarre quest for a model train set. After becoming a student of Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes casts himself as the dour teacher), Nureyev so impressed the man that he was asked to move in with him. Then he so impressed the man’s wife that they started an affair.
The White Crow is engaging if a little dull, and might have benefitted from less laboured editing. But the story that starts on a train gains steam in the final act. In Paris, Nureyev has been swanning about with Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a Parisienne socialite who proves vital to his defection. When his handlers tell him he’s not going to London with the rest of the performers, they explain that it’s because Khrushchev wants a private performance. Then they say it’s because his mother is ill.
Never lie twice; Nureyev immediately knows something is up, and the subsequent scuffle of defection is one of the most exciting scenes in a movie this year in which weapons are not involved; one of the French airport police pulls a badge on the Russians, who immediately back down. Nureyev’s leap to the West proved to be the dancer’s most impressive grand jeté.