Some 35 years after Taylor Hackford’s Mikhail Baryshnikov vehicle White Nights, the slow-burning subgenre of “films with ‘White’ in the title about and/or starring a legendary Soviet ballet dancer who defected to the West” gets another entry with Ralph Fiennes’ The White Crow, a biopic of Rudolf Nureyev. A stated theme of Nureyev’s dancing — and thus the film — is that the technique is less important than what story is being told, which makes it all the more ironic that director Fiennes’ technique tends to muddle the story. He focuses on the events of 1961 Paris, where the 23-year-old Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) defects with the aid of socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos).
But Fiennes does so in a rather unfocused manner, intermixed with frequent flashbacks to the younger, slightly shaggier Nureyev studying under the kindly instructor Pushkin (Fiennes) in 1955 Leningrad, while a third, wholly unnecessary timeline drives home that Nureyev’s childhood was miserable. Thankfully, The White Crow is engaging enough to overcome the stumbles in how its story is told. The climactic defection scene is a nailbiter, and Fiennes evokes what feels like an authentic Tati-era Paris. And while the picture wisely treats Nureyev’s queerness as just one of many facets of his personality, we do get to see somebody’s own little crow.
Rated R. Opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.