I watched The White Crow at my home via studio screener. I don't see a lot of movies this way, but in this case, I did. I was able to pet my dog while watching. Quite soothing.
With no major research before viewing, I only knew the film was about Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian ballet dancer I learned about when I was a kid because he showed up as a host of a badass episode of The Muppet Show in 1978, prompting me to ask my dad a lot of questions. Dad explained that he was a famous ballet dancer who could barely speak English and was kind of a hero because he basically told Russia to piss off, escaped the commies, and came over here to hang out with Kermit the Frog. This made perfect sense to me.
Anyway, about halfway into this movie, I was more than impressed. First off, the guy they got to play Nureyev is Oleg Ivenko, a Ukrainian dancer making his acting debut. Ivenko, first off, looks a little like Nureyev, and sounds very much like the dancer. Better yet, the man can dance, so no ballet doubles here. What you see is pure performance, and Ivenko does stunning physical work on top of a decent acting job.
As I kept watching, I became more and more impressed with Ralph Fiennes playing Nureyev's dancing mentor, Pushkin. Fiennes shows up in the first scene, speaking fluent Russian as if it were his first language, with a performance that has a sweet stoicism to it.
The film mixes English, French, and Russian, with authentic cinematography that makes it look like it was shot in the '70s, when some of it takes place. I became curious about who directed the picture, having not checked into it before viewing. The presentation of the film had me figuring it was some Russian or French director.
Lo and behold, it is Ralph Fiennes who directs The White Crow, a revelation I found thrilling. Fiennes has directed before (An Invisible Woman), but never with such strength and confidence. Honestly, discovering Fiennes as the director of this movie was one of the bigger surprises I've ever had reviewing films.
The movie primarily focusses on the fateful trip to France where Nureyev made the leap and defected from Russia. In a non-structured, fluid way, Fiennes also takes us to Nureyev's time as a student as a dancer, and even back to Nureyev's childhood and the struggles he had as a young boy with his mother and mostly absentee father.
The film stops before Nureyev's life in the West, where he had a spotty film and dance career and passed away in 1993 at age 54. Honestly, I wouldn't mind a sequel to The White Crow that covers those years up until his passing. That probably won't happen because this isn't a Marvel movie.
Besides the strong supporting performance from Fiennes, Adele Exarchopoulos (God, I hate trying to spell that name) of Blue is the Warmest Color, plays Clara Saint, who met Nureyev in France and assisted in his defection. This is perhaps Exarchopoulos' (geez...that name) most high-profile role since Color and she's up to the task.
Ivenko replaced Hayden Christensen, who was originally cast as Nureyev but had to drop out due to ankle issues. What a casting coup for Fiennes, because this movie wouldn't be half of what it is if it weren't for Ivenko. It's an amazing thing to see a movie where nobody has to resort to camera trickery or CGI to pull off an actor performing an amazing dance scene. And then that same dancer walks off stage and delivers lines admirably. Fiennes got a lucky break when he found this guy.
By the way, you haven't lived if you haven't seen Nureyev performing Swine Lake or "Baby It's Cold Outside" with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show. It's on YouTube, and highly recommended.