Rudolph Nureyev, widely regarded as the greatest male dancer of his generation, possessed the quality that makes any technically proficient artist into something special; rebelliousness. He learned the rules of dance, then pushed further. Ralph Fiennes’ third directorial offering tells the story of this Soviet ballet dancer gradually breaking free of constraints until the moment of his defection from the Soviet Union.
Nureyev feels oppressed by both rigid dancing techniques and the strict laws of U.S.S.R. communism. While this ‘oppressed artist’ trope may appear well-worn for a biopic, the film doesn’t press this ‘dancer-rebel’ image as relentlessly as the recent comparable documentary on Sergei Polunin does. It instead remains understated but clear, allowing Nureyev’s insistence on stretching beyond convention to be expressed in a splintered narrative; the viewer doesn’t get the traditional, linear structure of a developing prodigal talent – discovery, nurturement, frustration, then gradual eclipse of teachers, environment and self. Instead, we see Nureyev at different points throughout his development as a dancer, while his occasional rebellious impulses in class, exploration of Parisian streets and illegal friendships with foreign dancers underpin a slow depiction of his resistance to control.
Oleg Ivenko, Ukrainian dancer-turned-actor, is a fitting choice for the lead role – much like Nureyev, even if his performance lacks full technical accomplishment, appearing rigid in scenes such as his outburst at a dancing master (being his first role, this is no surprise), he performs well for most of the film. Additionally, he offers authenticity to the film by carrying himself as a dancer, in his genuine awe at seeing the stained glass of Sainte-Chappelle for the first time on film, and in his evocative dancing. Nureyev is reassured that despite his occasional technical failings, he comes to life on stage, ‘and that’s more important’.
The film’s own technical failings can be seen in a slightly on-the-nose decision to desaturate his childhood scenes of rustic poverty, in contrast to the depth and brightness of the shots of his dance academy and European travels. While this initially stifles the impact by being too suggestive of a dancer enlightened by art, another level comes through later in the film; Nureyev is class-conscious, acutely aware of moving from a poverty-stricken background into European socialite and Soviet intellectual circles. Although questions are raised about the portrayal of wealth as something to be romanticised against inferior lower classes, it breathes life into Nureyev’s desires on screen; technical failing is overtaken by spirit.
Finally, Mike Eley’s cinematography deserves special mention; from the angles of Nureyev being silenced by The Raft of the Medusa painting to sweeping shots of the yellows, whites and railings of continental architecture, the immersion into Europe feels complete.
The phrase ‘white crow’ denotes an unusual individual. This beautifully shot film skilfully handles its portrayal of Nureyev as an outsider trying to express himself against oppression, whilst structurally building up to a strong climax that leaves the viewer immediately curious about real-life events and historical contexts.