The idea unspooled in the first 15 minutes of White Nights is so intriguing, you wonder how it hasn’t gotten on film before: A Russian dancer, long ago defected to the West, is aboard a passenger plane that develops engine trouble and must make an emergency landing in, of all places, the good old Soviet Union. The Soviets seize the dancer, telling the world he’s in a coma, and start “persuading” him to remain in Russia and dance for them.
The rest of the movie is about the dancer’s efforts to get out of the place. It’s a swell set-up, and the people behind White Nights have the perfect embodiment of their hero in Mikhail Baryshnikov, himself a famous defector and among the greatest ballet dancers ever.
To help this dancer decide to remain in Russia, the KGB (or whoever they are) enlist the aid of another expatriate, this time an American tap dancer (Gregory Hines) who came to Russia to escape prejudice at home. His star has slipped, however, and he’s now staging Porgy and Bess just outside of a salt mine (really) in Siberia. He’s none too happy about his new assignment – which seems to be escorting Baryshnikov to Leningrad and getting him into shape.
With all the possibilities in this plot, director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) has made a bewilderingly slow and dingy film, except for the plane crash and the climax. The narrative action seems weighed down by the washed-out atmosphere (which tells us that not only is the Soviet Union a place where freedom is throttled, it’s also always overcast there).
Scenes go on too long, and the film’s themes are stated repeatedly. For all this, White Nights does crackle fitfully. The cast, for the most part, is marvelous; Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, is not exactly an actress, but she hits the right notes as Hines’ Russian wife.
And Jerzy Skolimowski, himself one of the finest directors in world cinema (Deep End, Moonlighting), coolly plays the sinister head of a Soviet agency. Skolimowski, a Pole and another expatriate, knows a thing or two about Soviet repression, and he plays the villain with obvious relish.
But Hines and, especially, Baryshnikov carry the film. You expect the dancing to be good, and it’s astonishing. Twyla Tharp did most of the choreography, although Hines improvised his own soaring tap number.
But both men are compelling screen presences, whether dancing or just hanging around. Baryshnikov got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Turning Point seven years ago, but he’s come along way since then. He’s much more at ease, and despite a still-thick Russian accent, he conveys range and humor.
The film’s high point comes midway, when Hines is trying to get Baryshnikov to limber up in a Leningrad studio and Baryshnikov is tantalizing Hines with new music from the West. Hines bets Baryshnikov 11 rubles that the latter can’t do 11 pirouettes, and the scene turns into a duel of amusing one-upmanship, with a sense of life that the film doesn’t quite find anywhere else.
First published in the Herald, December 1985
Being a former ballet dancer myself (I’ll bet you didn’t know that), I took great interest in this film at the time. I saw Baryshnikov on stage once, an electrifying experience, and I saw Gregory Hines once too, but not dancing – he was demolishing a platter of chicken wings at the Cafe Carlyle during a set by Bobby Short. (I realize this opening makes me sound much more interesting than I am.) The cast includes Helen Mirren, Geraldine Page, and John Glover. Rossellini was just at the beginning of her real Hollywood run, so I hope I can be forgiven for slighting her skills; I think what I really meant was that she had a freshness that almost didn’t look like acting. Hard to believe she followed this with Blue Velvet, just a year later – these films seem so distant.