Since it is surprisingly almost six decades since Rudolph Nureyev’s highly publicised defection from the Kirov Ballet on a trip to Paris, this biopic may have the added appeal of novelty for many viewers.
Based on a biography, I know not how accurately, this focuses on the dancer’s early life up to the age of twenty-three. Beginning with his dramatic birth on a crowded train, his sisters looking on, the story switches continually between his childhood, life as a frustrated dancer in Moscow from the late fifties, and transport to the heady excitement of Paris on a five week trip for the troupe in 1961. This “flitting” technique creates a somewhat disjointed effect at times.
The poverty of his early life is filmed in a black and white world of it would seem perpetual snow, with his kindly peasant mother (with remarkably good teeth) struggling to hold the family together until the sudden appearance of a stranger, his soldier father returned from a long unexplained absence. Nureyev tells the sophisticated young Parisienne with whom he has struck up a friendship how his mother’s chance win of a lottery ticket to the ballet introduced him to a magical world he was determined to make his own. We do not learn until the final scenes how this meant separation at an early age from his family to begin his training, several years late, which put him under pressure to catch up. We are left to conclude how these experiences led to his fierce independence, thirst for knowledge, determination to succeed to the point of utter selfishness, confidence to the point of arrogance and outbursts of ill-tempered rudeness, even against friends, if he felt himself slighted, or simply wanted to demonstrate the power his talent gave him. Alongside this litany of unappealing traits, the young dancer turned actor who plays him manages also to convey Nureyev’s charm, which combined with his sheer ability caused sorely tried friends to forgive him and help him when it came to defecting.
Despite his at times obnoxious behaviour, it is hard not to sympathise with Nureyev when he is reduced to a mental wreck at the prospect of being sent back early to Moscow to dance for Krushchev, a euphemism for the punishment provoked by his refusal to obey the instruction against fraternising with foreigners. Instead, he has led his principal minder a merry dance, going out to bars, even strip clubs, with his decadent western friends, only returning around 5 a.m. The film is powerful in conveying his sense of oppression, the insidious menace of the continual monitoring of his activities. His exuberant pleasure over discovering western culture in its broadest sense, one of his first observations being the word “liberté” carved on a column, contrasts with the grey narrowness of the communist régime which we know with the wisdom of hindsight is doomed to fail. Ironically, a French dancer remarks that, although they may lack technical accuracy, Soviet dancers like Nureyev perform with a kind of raw energy which the “liberated” performers of the west lack.
Even though it necessitated sub-titles, I liked the authenticity provided by the extensive use of Russian in the dialogues, with even actor/director Ralph Fiennes mastering the language for his role of the self-effacing yet gifted ballet instructor. Also, not all Soviet life is bleak, as indicated by the scene in which Nureyev takes part in a social gathering in a well-furnished room where friends laugh, drink, discuss and sing traditional songs behind the plain door of a Russian apartment.
Lacking the spark to make it a great film, this is very watchable and thought-provoking.