Greetings again from the darkness. Nijinsky. Nureyev. Bruhn. Baryshnikov. The legends of male ballet dancers starts with that list, and possibly include a handful of others. Ralph Fiennes directs a screenplay from David Hare that brings us the story of how one of these, Rudolph Nureyev, defected from Russia to the west in 1961.
Opening with Nureyev’s teacher Alexander Pushkin being interrogated (“Why did he defect?”) by a Russian official immediately after the defection, the film ping pongs between 3 time frames in an attempt to better explain Nureyev’s reasons … or at least the background that created such a headstrong and talented young man. We flashback to 1938 where his mother famously gave birth to him in the confines of a moving train (traveling and trains remained important to him). We then flash forward to 1961 when Nureyev arrives in Paris with the Kirov Ballet, and then back to 1955 as he’s first admitted at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet (established 1738) – a prestigious dance school.
It’s actually this hopping from one time frame to another that is the film’s weakness. The script is ambitious but ultimately flawed, as it attempts to tackle too much rather than concentrating on what’s most important and interesting. We didn’t need so many childhood flashbacks to grasp that Nureyev was a different kind of kid who grew up in poverty in Siberia, raised with his sisters by a mother whose husband was away at war. Julie Kavanagh’s book “Rudolph Nureyev: The Life” inspired Mr. Hare’s screenplay, but the multiple timelines can be more fully explored in book form.
Ralph Fiennes plays the aforementioned Pushkin, a soft-spoken man who was a father figure to Nureyev, as well as a technical instructor. He also shared his philosophy of dance (and his wife – maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t) with his star pupil, and it’s easy to see how this elevated Nureyev’s ability. Combining that with his interest in classic art, a theme of turning ugliness into beauty was something Nureyev latched on to.
Oleg Ivenko stars as Rudolph Nureyev. Ivenko is a marvelous dancer and bears enough resemblance to the legend that we are quickly taken in. Ivenko is not a trained film actor, but as a dancer, he is accustomed to the spotlight and never wavers in his portrayal of a dancer he likely admired. He captures the emotional turmoil of a man enticed by the artistic and social freedoms of the west, while also remaining loyal to his homeland – loyal at least until he felt threatened (both physically and artistically). A tortured genius typically struggles with those in positions of authority and that’s on full display here.
This is the third directorial outing for 2-time Oscar nominee (for acting) Ralph Fiennes. His previous projects were THE INVISIBLE WOMAN in 2013 which no one saw, and CORIOLANUS in 2011 which almost no one saw. It’s likely his latest won’t draw a huge audience either, but Ivenko’s dancing is quite something to behold, and the climax at Le Bourget Airport in France is a suspenseful highlight. Nureyev was 23 at the time, and the defection decision is made almost spontaneously with a little help from his socialite friend Clara Saint (Adele Exarchapoulos, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR) and French dancer Pierre Lacotte (Raphael Personnaz). Rudolph Nureyev died of complications from AIDS in 1993, but he truly was a “white crow” – something extraordinary, and one who stands out.
watch the trailer: