By Chris Nashawaty
April 25, 2019 at 04:46 PM EDT
Larry Horricks/Sony Pictures Classics

When the Russian ballet phenomenon Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West in 1961, it was headline news around the world. Not only because his jaw-dropping muscular grace on stage had already made him the most electric dancer of his generation, but also because his flight was seen as another fallen domino in the Cold War – a mortal wound to the Soviet Union’s pride. That story, with all of its personal and global complexity, is now the subject of Ralph FiennesThe White Crow.

The title of Fiennes’ film (his third as a director) is a Russian idiom used to describe outsiders who are unusual, extraordinary, and unlike others. At 23, Nureyev was already all of those things, mixed with the bullish, head-strong temperament of a maverick artist. And the story of the first half of his soap-opera life (which began with his peasant mother giving birth to him on a Trans-Siberian train, up to his harrowing plea for political asylum from the KGB at Paris’ Le Bourget airport on June 16, 1961) couldn’t be more cinematic if it was conjured from the pen of Tolstoy. So it comes as a bit of a let-down that Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare don’t trust the material enough to just let its drama unfold more naturally. Instead, they busy up their film with so many flashbacks, flashbacks-within-flashbacks, and disorienting timeline hopscotching that it winds up stripping the story of some its innate power.

Real-life Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko plays Nureyev as a tempestuous, hard-to-like (albeit miraculously talented) egoist. And while all of this may be an accurate reflection of the real-life Nureyev, it makes him a problematically prickly character. It doesn’t help that Ivenko is…well, let’s just say he’s a much better dancer than actor. Nor does it help that his primary costar, Blue is the Warmest Color’s Adele Exarchopoulos, plays Nureyev’s well-connected French friend and confidant, Clara Saint, so flatly. It sometimes feels like she’s sleepwalking through the film. At one point, her character mentions that she’s taken some Valium to get over a tragedy, but in the rest of the scenes she seems just as much in a haze. The only saving grace in the cast is Fiennes himself, who quietly soars as Nureyev’s sad-eyed Russian dance instructor Alexander Pushkin. His sensitivity in the role is so compelling, he makes the other performances only seem more lacking.

Still, Nureyev’s story is so inherently dramatic that it’s not all a loss. Toggling between Nureyev’s formative training years in his native Russia and his days in Paris as a visiting member of the Kirov, the film captures the political turmoil and smoky, jazzy bohemian life of the period so faithfully you can almost smell the scent of a burning Gauloises in your seat. And some of those flashbacks, including one of Nureyev as a poor, wide-eyed young provincial boy visiting the theater for the first time and being so swept away by its opulence that it would set him on his life’s destiny, are beautifully imagined.

Yet, there’s something about the movie that makes it all feel as though it’s being presented under glass. Nureyev is more of an idea than an actual flesh and blood character. The only time The White Crow truly shoots off sparks is during its dance sequences. For those brief, beautiful moments, you can almost feel what it must have been like to witness a one-of-a-kind artist at the spellbinding height of his powers taking flight. But then the spell is broken, and the crow falls back to earth. B-

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