Ballet on Tap
I quite enjoy dance movies but as someone who doesn't get ballet the thought of watching a dance movie about a ballet dancer, a male one at that didn't appeal to me. I say didn't because after watching "White Nights" I was surprisingly impressed especially at the dancing of Mikhail Baryshnikov whose athleticism is stunning. It's not just the dancing which includes the late Gregory Hines showing what an exceptional tap dancer he was because there is also an entertaining storyline as well with the interesting premise of a Russian ballet dancer who defected to America ending up stranded in Russia when his plane is forced to make an emergency landing. Honestly the storyline is not the best and often feels like it has been written purely so we have Hines and Baryshnikov sharing the screen but for those like me who don't like the sound of watching a ballet movie it works.
Having defected to America 8 years earlier ballet star Nikolai 'Kolya' Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov) is on his way to Japan with his manager Anne (Geraldine Page) when the plane they are on suffers an electrical fault and they are forced to make an emergency landing at a Soviet military base. It is not long before Colonel Chaiko (Jerzy Skolimowski) of the KGB shows up as he is made aware that they have Kolya in their grip and sets about forcing him to stay. In order to do so he puts pressure on American tap dancer Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines - The Cotton Club) who defected to Russia many years earlier when things didn't go so well for him back in the states, to persuade Kolya to stay. At the same time he also gets Kolya's former dance partner Galina Ivanova (Helen Mirren - Age of Consent) to try and persuade him to stay with promises of having his old life back.
To put it simply what makes "White Nights" work for me is that the basic idea of a Russian defector stranded in Russia again is an interesting one especially as he definitely has no plans of staying there. Now the basic idea is good but the actual writing sometimes feels too forced yet there is still an interesting drama which unfolds as we learn why Raymond defected and why he is fearful of ever returning to America, what that would mean to his wife Darya who was his translator and we also see the complexity of the relationship between Kolya and Galina. On top of this we have the more personal conflict for Kolya as not only does he discover that his name has been erased from the history books so young Russian ballet dancers don't know him but also the tempting offer to be able to dance at the Kirov again.
Of course alongside this character based drama which to not give too much away builds to Kolya trying to make a break for freedom we have the dancing. Now the script does seem manufactured in that here we have not only Mikhail Baryshnikov who is astonishing when it comes to ballet but also Gregory Hines who is just astonishing when it comes to tap dancing and inevitably they dance together. But even if it is manufactured you won't care because watching Baryshnikov and Hines dance be it together or separately is just magnificent and that is from someone who doesn't really like ballet. Yes there is also a big problem here with some music which doesn't feel right for the movie but even then you end up ignoring that and just watch drop jawed at the dancing.
But Baryshnikov and Hines don't just shine when it comes to dancing and both give convincing performances of characters who find themselves with opposing views but also with an understanding of each other. They both do a good job of bring out their characters complexities as do Isabella Rossellini as Darya and Helen Mirren who as Galina Ivanova holds on to her belief that Russia is changing and becoming freer.
What this all boils down to is that "White Nights" whilst not a great movie does deliver solid entertainment especially for those who normally wouldn't be interested in a movie about a male ballet star. And trust me, even if ballet is not your thing it is hard not to be impressed by the talented Mikhail Baryshnikov as well as Gregory Hines.