It’s no easy trick to make a Rudolf Nureyev movie without Rudolf Nureyev. The legendary Russian dancer electrified the international ballet world in the 1960s and ’70s, seducing audiences with the lofty abandon of his jumps and the cool sensuality of his gaze. The recent documentary “Nureyev” shows his screaming fans — “it was like Beatlemania, but balletmania,” says an observer — and reminds us what drew them, showing a clip of Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in “Swan Lake.” Writhing together in the ballet’s final moments, they disappear into the tragedy and into each other; you can barely tell where the one dancer stops and the other begins.
“The White Crow,” Ralph Fiennes’ accomplished feature about Nureyev’s defection to the West, operates at a disadvantage: Nureyev is long gone — he died in 1993 at the age of 54, of complications from AIDS — and there isn’t another. Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko, as Nureyev, has a bit of the look; he’s got that intense expression hovering between sultry and peevish, and Fiennes knows when it’s best to just capture him in silence, his gaze searching for something he’s not finding. His dancing is lovely, particularly his perfectly placed turns, but “The White Crow” is less interested in dancing than in drama (Fiennes even, in one scene, cuts away from a “Swan Lake” performance; sacrilege!). The film focuses on those charged days and hours when Nureyev, on tour with the Kirov in France in 1961, decided at a Paris airport that he wouldn’t return to the Soviet Union.
Playwright/screenwriter David Hare structures much of “The White Crow” as a taut thriller, with Nureyev perpetually eyed by cagey KGB agents, and the long sequence in the airport is undeniably a nail-biter. It’s a movie full of small pleasures, such as the Polaroid-ish softness of the cinematography, Fiennes’ quietly noble performance as Nureyev’s mentor Pushkin, and the glimpses of the ballet studios, where teachers demonstrate soft shadows of steps that come to life when repeated by young dancers. But I watched it wishing for a little more dance, and a little more of Nureyev’s remarkably cinematic life. This young man in a beret was lightning in a bottle; pity the movie couldn’t have opened the lid just a little more.
★★★ “The White Crow,” with Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphael Peronnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin. Directed by Fiennes, from a screenplay by David Hare. 127 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity and language. Opens May 10 at Regal Meridian.