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Biopics and fictionalized realities

Left to right: Oleg Ivenko as Rudolf Nureyev and Mar Sodupe as Helena Romero in The White Crow. Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lately, it feels like every other new movie is based on or inspired by real people and true events. And even if that’s an exaggeration, you need only look at what’s currently playing and what’s coming up to sense the trend. Last month saw the release of Red Joan, the fictionalized tale of a real-life female scientist from England who became an atomic spy for the USSR in the 1950s and whose crimes were only uncovered many years later. This month, All Is True — a speculative drama about the final days of playwright William Shakespeare with his family in Stratford-Upon-Avon — hits theaters. Here are two more examples:

TOLKIEN

Biopics — biographical movies that explore the lives of notable or notorious figures from history or the news — seldom offer a detailed birth-to-death account. To successfully accomplish that, you’d need a trilogy or TV miniseries to do your subject justice. Generally, an on-screen biography hones in on the most significant aspect of someone’s career or personal growth. Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) is a typical example of such an approach. It examines the formative years of J.R.R. Tolkien, British author of the beloved fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings.

We get a few glimpses of Tolkien’s difficult, impoverished childhood, wherein the lone bright spots are those times when his frail mother imbued him with a love of storytelling. But for the most part, the script focuses on his years as a student in secondary school and university, the deep friendships he developed with four aristocratic classmates despite their class differences, and his subsequent, harrowing stint as a soldier in the trenches of World War I.

This tactic makes a case for how these experiences informed elements of his epic literary saga, particularly the quest and brotherhood aspects and the otherworldly battles. We’re meant to understand that his comrades inspired the Fellowship of the Ring in his books, and that his war trauma was transmogrified into the demonic creatures such as the fearsome dragon Smaug who terrorizes Middle-earth. Visual effects that suggest a monster roaming No Man’s Land get the message across, although in a heavy-handed way.

The movie also tracks Tolkien’s romance with the bright young woman who would become his wife, but those segments come off as secondary to his chums and his PTSD. The adult Tolkien is played by Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite, Mad Max: Fury Road) with a stiff reserve that occasionally crumbles when pressure strikes or noble ideals elevate him. The less-developed role of his wife-to-be is taken by the gamine Lily Collins, who is expected to simply be appealing and devoted. The result is polished, professional, and palatable in a U.K. period drama/Masterpiece Theater way, although nothing as momentous or memorable as Tolkien’s own masterpiece.

Tolkien opens in selected theaters on May 10.

THE WHITE CROW

Another current film biography — one that’s more concerned with the professional rise of its subject rather than the source of his art — is The White Crow. This is actor-director Ralph Fiennes’s engrossing realization of Russian ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev’s struggle to escape the Soviet Union’s totalitarian control of their citizens, even the Communist nation’s cultural ambassadors such as the members of touring dance companies. Primarily depicting Nureyev’s conflict with his mentors and his handlers and his attempt to defect to the West, the screenplay by David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) does manage to cover a little background material, hinting at underprivileged origins like those that burdened Tolkien. Still, it’s Rudi as a burgeoning, singular talent on the verge of international stardom who’s the real story.

The White Crow benefits from the well-choreographed presence of Oleg Ivenko, a professional dancer from the Ukraine in his first film role. Ivenko won’t win any Oscars this time out, but his moves and the built-in tension of the defection are quite sufficient to keep the project moving. Plus, he’s surrounded by accomplished actors, including the veteran Fiennes as Russian ballet-master Pushkin and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color) as cultured French doyenne and Rudi-rooter Clara Saint, as well as a troop of fine dancers for the stage work and the backstage drama.

Unlike Tolkien, The White Crow avoids flights of fancy, addressing the most relevant public facts of Nureyev’s life in a straightforward way. Of course, most movies of this type dramatize private or intimate moments and feature certain significant characters that combine elements of two or more actual people, or are entirely fictitious. And that’s the case here, as noted by the disclaimer in the closing credits. Drama is the key, even if it’s purported to be a reflection of reality. At some point in every biopic, you can be sure that things are going to get more pic than bio.

The White Crow opens at the Embarcadero Center Cinema on May 10.

Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist. Follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.

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