The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

The White Crow and Individualism: a film review

There is much to commend the film The White Crow, but there are a few reservations that should be gotten out of the way first.

Director Ralph Fiennes caught the essence of the story of the ballet great Rudolf Nureyev, but he cast a wide net and caught far too much extraneous material. There were sections that dragged on too long and the film lasted longer than the story it depicted.

Fiennes cast Oleg Ivenko, who has no film experience, in the lead. But the Ukrainian dancer is well cast for the role and his inexperience doesn’t hinder his performance.

One of the main points of the film is advice Nureyev is given and later he gives others as well — the role of dance is more than technique, it’s the story the dance tells. It is advice Fiennes should have taken to heart.

He burdens the film with “technique” and lets the story suffer as a result. What I mean is he learned flashbacks are nice and then packs them in repeatedly. The progression of the story is constantly interrupted as the viewer is taken back and forth in time — often for no apparent reason.

A more linear approach would have worked better, especially as the film was progressing toward a dramatic end — the defection of Nureyev in 1961 at Le Bourget Airport.

It seems to me scenes in a film should serve a function — and one important function is to covey information to the viewer or to move the plot forward toward the culmination. The erratic seesawing between past and present acts as an anchor — an anchor can be good, unless you need to move forward. The film needed to move forward but the flashbacks put it in neutral much of the time.

The biggest flaw, however, is how Fiennes turned a dramatic climax into an anticlimax. The scene where Nureyev decides to defect at the airport — upon realizing what the socialist bureaucrats intended to do to him after inventing an excuse to rush him back to Soviet Russia — is well presented. It is dramatic and it is here where the film should have ended.

Instead of ending on a high note, Fiennes goes back to low speed and it drags on with another scene — one that adds nothing to the story — but leaves you with Fiennes dominating the end of the film. Now, had the film been about the Fiennes character, Alexander Pushkin, that might have made sense. But Nureyev, not Pushkin, was the main character. To make it worse Fiennes played Pushkin as someone who was barely present when he was there. He’s subdued, quiet, gentle, soft-spoken—barely noticed in comparison to the fiery Nureyev. To end the film as he did was to throw a wet blanket over the film.

As much as what Fiennes got wrong acts to hold back the film, it is what he got right that makes it worth viewing.

The film is titled The White Crow for a reason. Crows aren’t white; a white crow is a crow that is different from the others. It is one who stands out from the crowd. In a collectivist world being different is a sin, if not a crime. In contrast a free society encourages individualism and the diversity inherent in individualism. It allows greatness and not conformity.

While Nureyev is in constant conflict with the socialist government of Soviet Russia he does not perceive his conflict as political. It is social. He doesn’t understand the needless rules that hamper him from achieving his own greatness. He doesn’t care about the grand philosophical debates — he just wants to be free, to be an individual and to achieve the greatness he knows is within him. He feels stifled and oppressed. He is kept under watch constantly while on tour in the West — never really free from the prying eyes of his socialist overlords.

Even those watchers who are sympathetic to his desires remind him they have to answer to others who aren’t as nice. Socialism is hierarchy, and obedience and ultimately violence to enforce the conformity it demands — one reason every socialist system is ultimately conservative and oppressive. There is no place for the White Crow — no room for the individual. He is reminded he can be punished if he fails to obey, he is reminded he must serve the collective, he is cajoled into considering his mother, his family, his friends—everyone comes first and he comes last.

For Nureyev, if there is no room for the individual there is no place for greatness and ultimately no place for beauty. He is obsessed at what he can accomplish — he knows his own greatness and is unashamed in acknowledging it. Nothing can stand in his way to achieve that greatness, but life under the Soviets is filled with roadblocks, lectures about how he owes the collective everything and why his individual needs are unimportant.

Some say, with warrant, that Nureyev is portrayed as uncaring and rude — but he’s a man with one sole mission in life — to achieve the beauty and greatness he believes possible and nothing and no one will be allowed to stand in his way. Thwarting him is the doctrine the individual is nothing, the collective is everything and it takes one with the steely, selfish determination of Nureyev to fight it. Yes, he could be rude, without patience and unapologetic, but it was what was required to overcome the barriers the Soviet socialist regime put in his way.

This message is in the film — unfortunately it is a part of the story often overwhelmed by the technique. But it is still there and it can be relished, it is caught well in the trailer for instance. It—the story and not the technique—makes this film worth seeing.

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