The White Crow

Oleg Ivenko plays Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev, who makes a fateful decision while visiting Paris, in "The White Crow."

As a director, Ralph Fiennes has found a niche showing how the world’s great artists weren’t necessarily great people. “The Invisible Woman” dug beneath the beloved public persona of Charles Dickens to show his shabby treatment of his lifelong mistress.

With “The White Crow,” Fiennes tackles the life of legendary Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, whose talent on stage was only matched by his opinion of his talent on stage. “If I had danced tonight, you would remember it,” Nureyev arrogantly tells someone, and another person calls him “the most selfish man I’ve ever met in my life.” And that’s one of his close friends!

Written by playwright David Hare, “White Crow” focuses on a pivotal event in Nureyev’s life, when in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, he defected to the West. Around this event, “White Crow” swirls with flashbacks to different moments in Nureyev’s young life, starting with the moment he was born, on a crowded Russian train in 1938.

Does Nureyev’s life story need this many flashbacks, jumping back and forth between his boyhood to his teenage years studying dance in Moscow, to that fateful trip to Paris when he decided to defect? It doesn’t seem so. But when the film focuses on that Paris trip, it holds your attention, with a magnetic performance by Oleg Ivenko as Nureyev.

Ivenko is a Ukrainian dancer making his big-screen debut in “The White Crow,” and he’s just as convincing offstage as he is recreating Nureyev’s movements onstage. Arriving in Paris as part of a tour of Russian dancers, Nureyev’s eyes widen as he takes in the pleasures of the Western world. He’s hungry for culture, staying out late at night at clubs with a group of new Parisian friends, then getting up early the next morning to be the first to enter the Louvre.

In particular, he’s taken with a painting called “The Raft of Medusa,” which depicts the survivors of a shipwreck. A Parisian friend (Raphael Personnaz) suggests that Nureyev is drawn to the painting because it takes a moment of great ugliness and makes it beautiful, much as Nureyev took his hardscrabble life in rural Russia and turned it into a great dance career. Nureyev’s embrace of Western culture makes his Russian minders very nervous, especially when he starts going out with a Chilean woman (Adele Exarchopoulos of “Blue is the Warmest Color”).

Fiennes films Paris in warm oranges and baby blues, making it look as fresh and thrilling as it must have been to Nureyev’s eyes. This is often unsubtly contrasted with the more drab colors of the Russia flashbacks. The scenes of Nureyev as a boy are desaturated almost to the point of being in black and white.

It all builds toward a riveting climax, in which Nureyev, about to be put on a plane back to Moscow, has to decide if he will seek political asylum or not. It’s a chaotic, messy scene, and Ivenko lets Nureyev’s trademark haughtiness drop away to reveal his genuine fear beneath.

Back in Russia, Nureyev’s defection is called an “explosion of character” by his teacher (Fiennes in a small role). I’m not quite sure what he means, and “White Crow” deliberately keeps Nureyev at a distance from us, much as he kept those around him at a distance. But it is an engrossing account of the moments leading up to that decisive step from East to West that, once taken, could never be taken back.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.