Freedom of Expression

For his first two films as director, Ralph Fiennes indulged in his passion for literature. Coriolanuswas a contemporary militaristic update of Shakespeare’s bloody Roman play, while The Invisible Womandealt with the life of Charles Dickens. His latest project,The White Crow, switches disciplines. The story of Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare explore what made this egotistical, impetuous and unquestionably brilliant star defect from the Soviet Union to the West. 

A key decision, obviously, is who to cast as the young Nureyev, and it must be said Fiennes made a wise choice in selecting Oleg Ivenko. The Ukrainian-born dancer offers up a robust turn as Nureyev despite his entire lack of acting experience in front of the camera. Alongside him, Fiennes – complete with bald pate – plays Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s no-nonsense tutor at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet. Impressively, Fiennes performs in Russian, with the script a fifty-fifty mix of Russian and English (as Nureyev often spoke the latter with his French friends).

With a story moving back and forth through time, showing Nureyev’s troubled student years, sibling into its rhythms is not necessarily the easiest. But it’s a detailed experience, with Fiennes authentically depicting the Nureyev’s 1961 defection at Le Bourget airport in Paris, when he refused point blank to get on a plane heading back to Moscow. As climaxes go, it’s highly watchable, with Nureyev gaining much-needed assistance from his socialite French friend Clara Saint (Blue Is The Warmest Colour’s Adèle Exarchopoulos).

Of course, there’s much more to Nureyev’s life, but Fiennes declines to take us beyond the defection and into his years of international fame, dancing with Margot Fontaine and running the Paris Opera House. While this may disappoint some, The White Crow is still an impressively marshalled production, with Ivenko naturally coming into his own during the ballet sequences. If the film could’ve used more urgency and fluidity in its earlier scenes, it’s still a fine evocation of the artistic spirit and what drives someone to leave their country behind. 

James Mottram

The White Crow opens on 22 March. For more details, visit:

1. Stills from
The White Crow.