With his fitfully compelling biopic, "The White Crow," actor Ralph Fiennes (in his third feature as a director), tackles the life of legendary and mercurial Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. Based on Julie Kavanagh's biography "Rudolf Nureyev: The Life" and adapted by screenwriter David Hare ("The Hours"), the film doesn't require a prior knowledge or particular love of ballet, centering mostly on Nureyev's defection from the Soviet Union to the West -- the first Soviet artist during the Cold War to do so.
Jumping between several periods in the dancer's life, Hare's script gives us glimpses into Nureyev's poverty-stricken childhood, followed by training in Leningrad, and the Paris tour with the St. Petersburg-based Kirov Ballet Company in 1961 that forms the main crux of the narrative. During this time the dancer's obsessive drive to be recognized as an artist, as well as his embrace of Western culture and nightlife, creates clashes with his KGB handlers and eventually leads to his taking drastic actions to secure the life that he desires for himself.
Played by Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko, Nureyev is a difficult character to like. Arrogant and entitled, he clashes with authority figures and anyone who betrays a shred of doubt about his abilities. Even as a first-time actor, Ivenko acquits himself quite well, delivering a remarkably natural performance.
In addition to directing, Fiennes appears as the dancer's unreasonably patient mentor Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin, whose wife (Chulpan Khamatova) ends up taking a particular interest in the young dancer. While in Paris, Nureyev also forms a close relationship with French socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos, "Blue Is the Warmest Color"), who plays a crucial role in the dancer's later actions.
It's to Fiennes' credit that he never attempts to soften his subject to make him more palatable to audiences, but in the end this does make for a rather chilly watch. While Nureyev is a captivating figure and his life makes for a fascinating story, the execution can be clumsy, with an unfocused eye that values drama over dance. But strong performances from the entire cast go a long way in holding our interest.
And the film builds to a surprisingly suspenseful conclusion during its climactic standoff in the La Bourget airport, where the dancer makes his fateful decision. It's in this sequence that the film finds its urgency and its examination of a life impulsively lived in pursuit of freedom, and finally clicks into focus.