The White Crow

The White Crow, Rudolf Nureyev’s tale of Cold War defection is adapted to a new cultural climate.

Ralph Fiennes has often gone down political paths in his artwork. As an actor, he’s spent the past two decades amassing accolades as one of Europe’s most dynamic ensemble members. His career kicked off in Anthony Mighella’s The English Patient (1996), and achieved new heights as Gustave M. in Wes Anderson’s most recent feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). In both films, though very different, Fiennes plays out the troubles which visit peaceful men who become mired in combat, struggling to keep their personal interests intact amid the absurdity of ensuing destruction.

Director Ralph Fiennes with lead actor Oleg Ivenko at the Russian State Hermitage Museum (credit: The White Crow)
Director Ralph Fiennes with lead actor Oleg Ivenko at the Russian State Hermitage Museum (credit: The White Crow)

The same may soon be said for his directing. Since 2011, Fiennes has been contributing thoughtful passion projects into the European film scene. Born in Suffolk, England, his first two directive features stayed close to his singularly British roots – an adaption of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (2011), and a biopic of Charles Dicken’s late-in-life love affair, The Invisible Woman (2013). In both, Fiennes has also played the leading man.

His new film, The White Crow –still in the process of production and currently being pitched for sale around the Toronto International Film Festival – is a dramatic departure from his previous work, a project where Fiennes promises to leave his comfort zone behind, in preference of the world stage.

An adaptive biopic written by David Hare, The White Crow is the story of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, a dramatic, if forgotten figure of international renown.

The principal of the USSR’s Mariinsky Ballet for many years, Nureyev (played in the film by Oleg Ivenko) defected to the West during a touring production in Paris in 1960, at the height of the Cold War.

Though talk of Russian espionage is a near-daily occurrence in the American media of late, prompting journalists and pundits to term current events as something of a “second Cold War,” but the typical cultural backlash has been more hesitant than usual. For the time being, Hollywood’s stock action-movie villains are still terrorists, typically of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin. However, from the 1960s until the turn of the century, they were almost uniformly Russian, and one is loath to forget that the most direct form of Cold War combat took place onscreen, in different propaganda efforts launched by the two conflicting nations upon their docile viewers.

The most direct form of Cold War combat took place onscreen in propaganda efforts which still affect us today.
Oleg Ivenko as Rudolf Nureyev (credit: Jessica Forde)
Oleg Ivenko as Rudolf Nureyev (credit: Jessica Forde)

This propaganda was most often fabricated – such as the James Bond villains most Americans now closely associate with their imagining of Russian men – but preferably these events were orchestrated, across cultural and artistic front lines.

Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, in 1969, was a triumph of American engineering and technology, but it was also the culmination of a Space Race that was itself the proxy of nuclear missile development. The international chess competitions which vaulted Bobby Fisher to fame were themselves strategic moves playing across a global chessboard, as American and Soviet geniuses battled to see which nation could seem more strategic. And the 2014 documentary Red Army delivered wild insights into the pressure put on the USSR’s national hockey team to become the greatest in the world, as an opportunity to dominate the West in any form.

Nureyev’s defection, though unsolicited by the West, was one of the greatest examples of this propagandist battle taking place, and one that is very likely to stir up old resentments amidst the increasingly fragile relationship between the United States and Russia. Nureyev was at the time the greatest sensation in Russian ballet, but had a reputation as a rebellious nonconformist and a closeted homosexual. In Paris dancing in Stravinsky’s Firebird, he fled under the fear that he would be imprisoned if he returned home, after his KGB minders had determined he mingled too heavily with foreigners. Nureyev continued his great career in Paris but was unable to see his mother, or his motherland, again until 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev was president and he was dying of AIDS.

Nureyev’s defection is very likely to stir up old resentments amidst the increasingly fragile relationship between the United States and Russia.

Nureyev’s tragic story is a reminder of the intense repression Russian’s faced under the Soviet regime – which homosexuals still face under Putin’s rule today. Fiennes, for his part, has decided to embrace this controversy and embolden his film. In a very telling press release from BBC and HayWay films, the production team states “The White Crow climaxes with that global event, re-enacting a day that captivated and stunned the world over and proved to be one of the West’s greatest propaganda coups during the Cold War.” This release, while acknowledging its story’s place as a tool of Western manipulation, ultimately promises to side with Nureyev on his decision to defect, confirming the narrative that democracy is the greater of freedoms.

The ballet dancer’s story resurfaces at an interesting time, especially given Fiennes’ previous pension for adapting particularly timeless tales. While the second Cold War has clearly not yet reached us culturally, we are in an era where Russia is actively trying to make their nation seemed unified and their competitors appear weak. Nureyev’s The White Crow is a refutation of that narrative, and fundamentally a very American story, in its triumph of the individual. History, as Fiennes seems to know, never recalls itself by accident.

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Nolan Kelly writes on film He currently lives in Brooklyn

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