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The White Crow ***

It could have benefited from more actual dance content, and it's hampered by a needlessly convoluted structure, but Ralph Fiennes' modestly scaled portrait of Soviet ballet icon Rudolf Nureyev is arresting arthouse fare that shows the Oscar nominee ought to stick to this directing thing. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

He was larger than life, on stage and off. He had an appetite for life and a borderline masochistic obsession with perfecting his technique. He was more than a little full of himself and prone to rather embarrassing, very public temper tantrums. How toxic were his mercurial outbursts? I suppose one should ask the men and women he invited to his bed. So how could one movie harness the unbridled force of nature that was ballet dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev?

The answer, at least the one director and co-star Ralph Fiennes provides in his mighty fine biopic “The White Crow,” is simple: You don't. The Sony Pictures Classics release is not an all-encompassing, birth-to-death portrait of the influential dance icon. Rather, the Oscar-nominated thespian, stepping behind the camera for the third time, focuses on his formative years, using the dancer's fateful 1961 trip to Paris to perform with the Kirov Ballet as his main framing device. Call it the “Batman Begins” of arthouse dance films.

The relatively narrow focus, occasionally interrupted by desaturated widescreen flashbacks to Nureyev's childhood, turns out to be a shrewd move, the better to zero in on the burgeoning talent as his eyes are opened to a world away from the oppression he faces behind the Iron Curtain. As played by Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko, here making his acting debut, Nureyev is an impulsive perfectionist whose tough shell masks crippling insecurities that have been brewing since he was a boy growing up dirt poor in Moscow during and after World War II. Ivenko, his hawk-like eyes a beacon of laserlike precision, navigates those complicated waters with confidence and dexterity.

Never does the film come more alive than on the stage. There's nothing groundbreaking about the way Fiennes stages the Kirov's productions, but Ivenko ably captures Nureyev's commanding stage presence, that mixture of bold strength and effortless grace. Fiennes, aided by cinematographer Mike Eley, wisely stays out of the way. The performance sequences are so engrossing that I only wish there were more of them.

But there's no denying Fiennes' commitment to the process that takes a dancer from trial-and-error practice to stunning headliner. Concessions to an English-speaking audience are few and far between. Sequences are filmed in the characters' native tongues, be it Russian, French, English or, in a brief sequence, Spanish. “The White Crow's” integrity stands out just as conspicuously as one of Nureyev's astonishing pirouettes.

Which is why I wish Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare (“The Hours,” “The Reader”), inspired by Julie Kavanagh's biography “Rudolf Nureyev: The Life,” had gone for a more streamlined structure. Confusion is bound to set in when viewers discover there are three, not two, narrative strands. At the same time the film follows Nureyev's blossoming love affair with Western culture in Paris, it traces his training back in Russia under the tutelage of ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin, played by Fiennes himself, as well as the bond the dancer forms with the teacher and his wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), herself a former Kirov dancer. The jostling back and forth between France and Russia is too jarring, as strong as these portions are individually. (Ironically, the brief childhood flashbacks are less disruptive to the narrative flow.) Hare should have opted for a simpler, more straightforward narrative to depict Nureyev's transformation.

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Speaking of transformation, kudos to Fiennes and Hare for not turning Nureyev's voracious sexual appetites into an “issue.” They surface organically, in refreshingly nonchalant ways that add an intriguing layer to the film's portrayal. The takeaway here is that, despite living under near-constant surveillance by KGB agents, Nureyev did not appear to have any hangups about sleeping with men. Even more engrossing, Fiennes depicts his friends-with-benefits dalliance with Teja Kremke (Louis Hofmann), his German tutor, as a meeting of minds just as much as a coupling of bodies. And when Teja appears fully naked on screen, it's clear Fiennes himself has no hangups about homoerotic imagery. (The moment recalls a similar scene in James Ivory's “Maurice.”)

Fiennes takes a cue from his own modest approach to the subject matter by delivering an understated performance. His Pushkin is a mild-mannered and generous influence, intelligent enough to know he can accomplish more with his students with honey than with vinegar. You don't need me to tell you how good Fiennes is, but gosh darn it, he's really damn good in this.

“The White Crow” gradually builds up to the tense airport showdown during which Nureyev, faced with the possibility he would be punished for his defiant refusal to refrain from striking friendships with European dancers, chooses to defect to the West. Emblematic of the rest of the film, the sequence generates suspense without calling attention to itself. It almost plays like an unassuming corrective to the more conventionally staged climax of Ben Affleck's “Argo.” It shows that you don't become Rudolf Nureyev by merely excelling at your craft. Sometimes it takes a terrifying leap of faith to become the best version of yourself. So it goes with Fiennes' third directorial effort. Its imperfections might prevent it from meriting a standing ovation, but the filmmaker rewards your attention and patience by crafting a full-bodied look at a difficult and brilliant talent. Despite its narrative constraints, it feels pretty complete.

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