Double Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes is back this week with with the Liam Neeson co-produced The White Crow, a new film about the greatest male dancer of the 20th century, Rudolf Nureyev.
Some artists burn to create with a dedication that's unlike all other's. They sacrifice their lives, their relationships and often any real shot at personal happiness in the pursuit of some form of artistic perfection.
They're often very scary people. Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993) was one example.
It's was Nureyev's single-mindedness about his art and the sheer ferocity of his focus that inspired two-time Oscar winner Ralph Fiennes (with Liam Neeson co-producing) to make The White Crow, the film about Nureyev's dazzling and troubled life.
“He had this ferocious desire to realize himself as a dancer at the expense of everything else,” Fiennes, 56, tells the IrishCentral. “That drew me to this project. I was fascinated by his sheer focus.”
The film's title comes from an old Russian saying, a “white crow” describes a person who is a one-off, completely unlike any other. That was Nureyev, Fiennes says, from the moment he arrived at the famous Kirov school to train and later when he conquered Paris, London and New York, dazzling high society and reportedly becoming the lover of Jackie Kennedy (and some say Bobby Kennedy too).
Born on the Trans-Siberian Express train as his mother was taking a cross country trip to see his father, a Red Army commissar, Nureyev was only 54 when he died of Aids in 1993. Famously bisexual, he had many male and female lovers and liked to boast of his romantic conquests.
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But in The White Crow director Fiennes, who also co-stars, has less interest in Nureyev the celebrity and more interest in Nureyev the supernaturally driven artist.
Born into poverty far from Moscow and the bright lights, Nureyev's hard upbringing taught him to burn with a passion for accomplishment that was unlike any of his peers.
There was one big problem of course, Russia itself. The Soviet Union discovered an artist of the first rank in Nureyev, but they wanted to a big propaganda victory to match all his artistic ones.
But anyone looking at Nureyev could tell that he was not going to be contained by a thing as irrelevant as politics and sure enough soon he has what his dance master Pushkin (played by Fiennes) calls “an explosion of character” that leads him to defect to the west.
The new film veers between crucial moments in Nureyev's childhood and early twenties when he is coming into his power as a once in a century dancer. Nureyev, Fiennes reminds us, had the very rare ability to make audiences gasp with the emotional intensity of his performances and ability to tell a captivating story with movement.
“I saw Brian Friel (the Irish master playwright) shortly before he died and I told him I was making a film about Nureyev and he was really curious about it,” Fiennes says.
The English actor and director, who studied in at St Kieran's College in County Kilkenny and later the Newtown School in County Waterford, famously starred in Friel's play Faith Healer on Broadway and he says that Friel saw a parallel between the character he played in that play and Nureyev himself.
“Brian was talking about Francis Hardy in Faith Healer and he said to me Ralph, he's a killer, and so was Nureyev, the focus that he had.”
Liam Neeson came aboard as an executive producer early on (he stepped out at the film's UK premiere for his first public appearance since controversial comments he made in an interview caused a firestorm).
“He very kindly put some money and it was good to see that,” Fiennes says, referring to his old friend (the pair have been very close since their work with Steven Spielberg on Schindler's List in 1994).
As he was trying to get The White Crow made, Fiennes heard about another Nureyev film in the works. He didn't care. “This film is about the artist. It's about the role of the artist. And think he's a little terrifying,” he says. “I think our focus is what makes this work.”
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney talks about the rare moments in life when the blinds go up and your life is revealed to you and Nureyev has at least two of those moments in the film. Both times they involve paintings.
First Fiennes shows him in Paris in his first triumphant visit getting up early to be the first in line at the Louvre to see the painting The Raft of the Medusa by Gericault. Looking at it, Nureyev sees a metaphor for his own life, hanging on for a ship to bring him out of chaos toward, looking to be rescued and to rescue himself.
Another moment occurs when his soldier father leaves the young Nureyev in the woods in winter as a kind of endurance test, and then Fiennes cuts to an older dancer looking at the painting The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. It's his life in miniature again.
“Sometimes these things come to and you can't quite explain why,” says Fiennes. “But the engagement he has with The Raft of the Medusa and especially for me with The Prodigal Son, I just knew that they had to be in the in the film.
Nureyev's life eventually forces him to make a choice that isn't a choice at all. Stay in Russia and have his talent ruined by endless political interference, or defect to the west and lose connection to the land that made him and the deepest parts of himself.
In the film, we watch as he is forced to make a dramatic, life-altering choice. And even as he does he admits that this new found freedom probably won't result in personal happiness, but that was never his first consideration, as Fiennes makes clear.
“You're the most selfish man I have ever met,” his friend Clara tells him in Paris on his first trip. He doesn't disagree.
The White Crow opens Friday, April 26.
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