THE WHITE CROW (2019)

May 9, 2019

 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.

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DENIAL (2016)

October 6, 2016

denial Greetings again from the darkness. Guilty until proven innocent. It’s a concept that is inconceivable to Americans, yet it’s the core of British Law in libel cases. When once respected British historian David Irving accused American scholar and educator Deborah Lipstadt of libel, based on her book that accused him of being a Holocaust denier, the burden fell to Lipstadt to prove not just that Irving’s work was a purposeful lie, but that the Holocaust did in fact take place.

This is the first theatrical release in about 15 years for director Mick Jackson, who is best known for his 1991 L.A. Story and 1992 The Bodyguard, and for his Emmy-winning 2010 TV movie Temple Grandin. The script is adapted, from Deborah Lipstadt’s book, by playwright David Hare (The Reader, 2008), and the courtroom dialogue is taken directly from trial records and transcripts. Like most courtroom dramas, the quality relies heavily on actors.

Rachel Weisz plays Ms. Lipstadt with a brazen and outspoken quality one would expect from a confident and knowledgeable Queens-raised scholar. Timothy Spall bravely takes on the role of David Irving, a pathetic figure blind to how his racism and anti-Semitism corrupted his writings and beliefs. Tom Wilkinson is the barrister Richard Rampton who advocates for Ms. Lipstadt and Penguin Books in the libel suit brought by Mr. Irving. Andrew Scott plays Andrew Julius, the noted solicitor who also handled Princess Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles. Others include Caren Pistorius as an idealistic member of the legal team, and Alex Jennings as Sir Charles Gray – the sitting judge for the case.

Of course for any sane human being, it’s beyond belief that a Holocaust denier could achieve even a modicum of attention or notoriety, much less have the audacity to bring suit against a scholar who simply published descriptions of that denier’s own words. Rather than come down to fact vs opinion, a more fitting title would be opinion based on fact vs opinion based on a lie. If the words used against Irving in Lipstadt’s books are true, she would win the case. In other words, she had to prove that he was a racist, an anti-Semite and knowingly misrepresented the facts in his works as a Holocaust denier.

Mr. Jackson’s film begins with Ms. Lipstadt as a professor in 1994 at Emory University (where she remains employed to this day). In 1996, the lawsuit is filed, and in 1998, Lipstadt and Rampton visit Auschwitz. Though the courtroom drama and corresponding legal work takes up much of the film, it’s this sequence filmed at Auschwitz that is the heart and soul of the film. Very little melodrama is added … the scenes and the setting speak for themselves.

The trial finally started in 2000, and as always, it’s fascinating to compare the British court of law and process with that of the United States. The formality is on full display, but nuance and showmanship still play a role. The film and the trial ask the question … are you a racist/anti-Semite if you truly believe the despicable things you say/write? This is the question that the judge wrestles with (and of course, “Seinfeld” had a spin on this when George stated “It’s not a lie, if you believe it”).

It’s been a rough movie week for me with the Holocaust and slavery (The Birth of a Nation), but it’s also been a reminder of just what wicked things people are capable of, and how current society continues to struggle with such inexplicable thoughts. Kudos to Ms. Weisz, Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Spall for excellent performances, and to Mr. Hale for the rare inclusion of a Chappaquiddick punchline.

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