Ralph Fiennes’ study of an important chunk of the life of Rudolf Nureyev (1938 – 1993) is a talky, ponderous affair enlivened (of course) by some fabulous dancing.
The third film with Fiennes (who didn’t want to appear but had to for commercial reasons) in the director’s seat after Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman, it’s helped considerably by the central performance of Ukrainian hoofer Oleg Ivenko, who had never acted before and was surely way, way down the list of potential stars.
However, Ivenko’s fine work as a brash, up-himself Nureyev is frequently spoiled by the multilingual script penned by the much-acclaimed David Hare as “inspired” (always an iffy credit!) by Julie Kavanagh’s biography. Hare seems to think that a biopic-type pic has to be told non-chronologically, so he jarringly throws in flashbacks featuring the young Rudolf’s impoverished childhood in Ufa, most of which are unnecessary and confusing, and don’t offer any particular psychological insight into our subject’s self-obsessed behaviour.
In a cautiously-shot Paris back in 1961 the Kirov Ballet are undertaking a supposed goodwill visit, although it’s heavily implied that this has more to do with publicising the Soviet Union’s cultural superiority. Nureyev falls in love with the place, flitting about checking out the Louvre and other sights, and very nearly looking like he’s about to burst into a big showtune.
We also skip back to the 17-year-old Rudolf as he begins his ballet training in Leningrad under Alexander Pushkin, who’s played by Fiennes doing his standard restrained routine. Pushkin disapproves of his student’s haughty carry-on but nevertheless allows the lad to have dinner with him and his wife in their cramped rooms, leading to exactly what you’re expecting.
Back in Paris Nureyev flounces about not-so-secretly pursued by the KGB and begins a snarky friendship with melancholy socialite Clara Saint, as played by the luminous Adèle Exarchopoulos from Abdellatif Kechiche’s prurient Palme d’Or winner Blue Is The Warmest Colour. The moment she appears the film comes to life, and yet Fiennes and Hare don’t allow her to do anything much besides be cruelly mistreated by her supposed pal and smoulder behind sunglasses.
And yet Ivenko can dance like a dream and he’s allowed to do just that whenever the rest of the plot slows down and everyone shuts up for a minute. But is his Nureyev a victim of ‘straight-washing’? Well, perhaps. It is interesting that, in actuality, he was seriously promiscuous but we only see him in bed with another man once here (and then subtly and after-the-fact), and that one of the reasons that he wanted to defect from the USSR was because he had fully embraced his sexuality while in Paris. But, instead, the final, jittery sequence featuring the actual defection suggests that it was an almost spontaneous decision, and was more political and artistic in origin. And not because he was gay, which he certainly was.
Are LGBTI audiences going to be pleased? Nyet.
The White Crow (M) is in cinemas now