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Famed Russian dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov stars as Nikolai ‘Kolya’ Rodchenko, a Soviet dancer who 8 years earlier defected to the United States. Recognized as a passenger on the crashed flight, he is brought to Leningrad with African-American tap dancer, Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines), who himself left the United States and now lives in the Soviet Union. The Russians want Rodchenko to rejoin the National Ballet and dance the opening night, using Raymond to watch over him and further attempting to lure him with an old flame, a former dancer named Galina Ivanova (Hellen Mirren). The relationship between Raymond and Rodchenko is initially unstable as the two are both defectors but in opposite directions. Rodchenko wishes only to escape and return to the freedom of his former life and it takes time to establish trust, but eventually Raymond joins the scheme.
Directed by Taylor Hackford, White Nights is a serviceable thriller that tries hard to mix dancing and intrigue but comes up short, never putting enough emphasis on either. A startling beginning dance sequence with Baryshnikov sets a monumentally powerful tone that it never sustains (save for one moment), and while the dancing is often moving and even thrilling, the political shenanigans of the Cold War-era are dull and cliché. The leads are all well-cast, with Baryshnikov and Hines very convincing. Mirren, in a smaller role, shines as a once famous, now repressed and regretful ballerina who wishes for her former lover to stay but recognizes the immense power freedom has unleashed in his dancing. Isabella Rossellini plays Raymond’s wife in a thankless role that sees her mostly fretting, while Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski is the Soviet handler spying on the two dancers and working to keep Rodchenko in Leningrad. He sneers and menaces appropriately in a Bond villain-esque way that teeters on parody. A disappointment considering the talent and concept, White Nights might have worked better without the politics.
As the weeks pass under the suppression of the Soviet government, who have essentially blackmailed him into dancing, Rodchenko grows frustrated and more pressed in his quest for freedom. Ivanova is secretly working for the Russians to convince Rodchenko to give up his dream and realize that the Russian Ballet is the better place. On an empty stage, the two meet and she urges him to find peace where he is, but he cannot. He longs for expression and the chance to ‘scream’ his passion. Playing on a recording is Vladimir Vysotky, a Russian poet, actor and singer who, while ignored by the State, was hugely popular for his scathing commentary on society and politics, his raspy, aching voice a phenomenon that greatly touched and influenced many. In the song, Vysotky sings with immense passion, his powerful voice breaking with nearly every note, and Rodchenko forces Ivanova to watch him, to see him interpret the vocals with his own improvised dance. It moves her to tears.
Baryshnikov is an astounding performer, eliciting tremendous emotion with his movements. The scene is meant to visually express the passion that comes with freedom to do so, to take the power of the music and let it overwhelm. Ivanova has tried to tell him how grand his life could be in Russia, a star of unparalleled status living in luxury and adored by the people and the government. Rodchenko knows this would be a falsehood, a superficial false front to a life of artistic imprisonment. Ivanova spent her life in this world, precisely following the edicts of the masters above her, strictly bound to the standards of her profession. She has missed the chance for what being a dancer is truly about, something that Rodchenko now knows all too well. He moves about the entire stage in unbridled passion, throwing himself upon the floor with heartbreaking grace, his body contorted in beautiful agony as he lets out his joy for not just dance, but life. Ivanova is devastated by his performance, a magnificent expression of love and pain, torture and rage, fear and freedom. She breaks down in anguish and realizes he will never be what her superiors want, that the stage he dances on, nothing more than a gilded cage. It ruins her.
The single most powerful moment in the film, it takes the audience by surprise as well, as we too understand the basic want for freedom, but to be expressed so literally with dance is almost shocking. Baryshnikov explodes on the stage and we, like Ivanova, are deeply moved by not just his want, but his need for freedom. There is a beast within him, an astonishing creature of limitless flight that rattles and bangs against the bars the more he remains tethered to Soviet rule. This moment endures as the film’s centerpiece, the broader message in the overall muddled plot, rising above the rest of the story and lasting as it’s highest achievement.
James Goldman (screenplay), Eric Hughes (screenplay)
Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines, Jerzy Skolimowski