Both as an actor and a filmmaker, Ralph Fiennes is drawn to difficult men - those who reach for the stars but remain internally uneasy and constrained. His first two features as director were Coriolanus, from the Shakespeare tragedy about a heroic but fiercely unlovable Roman general, and The Invisible Woman, a portrait of Charles Dickens that concentrated on the author's less jovial side.
The White Crow, Fiennes' latest, is another study of a not-always-charming character, although this time he isn't the star. The subject is the celebrated Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, played as a young man by Oleg Ivenko, a Ukrainian dancer making his screen debut. The insistence on casting a real dancer rather than a "name" is indicative of Fiennes' own refusal to compromise to please a crowd. Still, with this project he may have bitten off more than he can chew. While officially a British film, The White Crow has many of the qualities of what is traditionally called a "Europudding", with input from many countries and a corresponding lack of focus. Filmed in several countries including France, Russia and Serbia, The White Crow leaps, not very elegantly, between three periods: Nureyev's drab childhood (shown in glimpses), his time at a dance academy in St Petersburg, and his visit to Paris in the early 1960s as a dancer for the Kirov Ballet.
The film itself takes flight from the limitations of David Hare's generally clunky script...
For the film's purposes, this last period is the most central, introducing Nureyev to various friends and lovers - including a rather doleful heiress played by Adele Exarchopoulos from Blue is the Warmest Color - and confirming his desire to become a citizen of the world. In photos, the young Nureyev looks like an exotic rock star; Ivenko bears a striking physical resemblance, but without the robustness. The immediate impression he makes is one of delicate, sulky beauty - full lips, deep-set eyes - and the script bears this out by dwelling on the character's limitless reserves of petulance. In a word, he's a brat, full of himself and his own gifts, yet deeply insecure. The film gives the impression that much of Fiennes' attention went into working with Ivenko on shaping the details of this portrait - and it is psychologically convincing.
Fiennes has typecast himself as Nureyev's faintly melancholic but imperturbable teacher Alexander Pushkin, who responds, when his pupil begs for positive feedback, "When you please me, you'll know." The role calls for Fiennes to speak Russian throughout - a challenge he appears to have tackled with his usual precision, although without knowing the language I can't pretend to judge his success. What about the dancing? In truth, there isn't much of it, which may be more a matter of expedience than choice. Putting ballet on screen is notoriously costly and difficult, even when your star is an actual dancer rather than an amateur whose limitations must be covered up.
Still, in a couple of brief but exhilarating scenes on stage, Nureyev seems to be in his proper element at last. Likewise, the film itself takes flight from the limitations of David Hare's generally clunky script, with its reliance on the stock biopic tactic of having the supporting cast rave about the hero's genius. Fiennes gets closer to the heart of the matter when he shows his hero visiting the Louvre, where he is riveted by Gericault's painting The Raft of the Medusa. As he cuts between Nureyev's gaze and the contorted muscles and bulging sinews of the shipwreck victims, we're made to understand that Nureyev is applying the lesson to his own art, musing on how the body wrenched to extremity may form part of a coherent design. As a filmmaker, Fiennes is enough of an artist to bring the point home without words - making it a letdown when he resorts to using dialogue to spell the whole thing out.