Despite the number of dance movies Hollywood has churned out over the last century, from Swing Time and Footloose to the Step Up franchise, the feature dance biopic has never found its footing. Take any great dancer from any genre — Martha Graham, Sylvie Guillem or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — and some might find it a bit surprising that none of these icons of the dance world have been given the cinematic treatment.
One obvious reason for this could be that unlike biopics on famous musicians, artists or athletes, it’s a lot harder to fake dancing on the big screen. It’s easy enough to cast Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, but Dafoe doesn’t really have to know how to paint like the Dutch post-impressionist. And look at actor Rami Malek. He just won an Academy Award for portraying singer Freddie Mercury by lip-syncing Queen’s music in Bohemian Rhapsody.
In The White Crow, a biopic on Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who is considered one of the greatest in the history of ballet, director and Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient) was tasked with finding someone who could not only be believable as Nureyev onstage, but who could also carry an entire film on his shoulders as the lead.
By casting first-time actor and Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko, Fiennes discovered someone with the talent to perform all the necessary arabesques and pirouettes, but in doing so forfeits the acting skill needed to create a fully formed character. Ivenko is inanimate — a poster boy for ballet, perhaps, but a poster board for drama. Even if the dancing portion of his portrayal is all audiences care about, two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Hare (The Reader) doesn’t seem to be interested in making Russian ballet a compelling part of the narrative.
The White Crow is more about Nureyev’s upbringing in an impoverished family in the USSR during the 1940s and his pursuit to become a professional ballet dancer regardless of his “inadequate technique” and the fact that during the Cold War, the Soviet regime kept their citizens isolated from other countries. Hare’s script fails to explore any of Nureyev’s relationships with much authentic emotion, which is regrettable since Fiennes gives a solid performance as Alexander Pushkin, one of Nureyev’s ballet instructors in Leningrad.
The film’s only truly fascinating moments come at the end when Nureyev is trapped in a Paris airport by Soviet officials and decides to claim asylum for fear that he will be taken back to the USSR and punished. The scene plays like something from an espionage thriller. It might not be as exciting as, say, a 32-turn fouetté, but it definitely puts the geopolitical tension of the era into perspective.
The White Crow opens exclusively at the Santikos Bijou Cinema Bistro May 24.
2.5 out of 5 stars