I'm not sure why, but, until I started seeing reviews of it, I thought that White Nights might be a pretty good film. The reviews I've seen so far proved to be accurate in their assessment of Taylor Hackford's new movie. White Nights just doesn't make it. It works neither as a thriller nor as a romance, both of which it has some aspirations towards. In fact, with one or two minor exceptions, White Nights only works when its stars, Mikhal Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, dance. At these moments, White Nights works very well indeed. Alas, though, Baryshnikov and Hines spend about 1/2 hour total dancing, and White Nights clocks in around ten minutes over the two hour mark. That means that White Nights has enough failed material to make up a whole movie of more modest length. That, finally, must be the verdict on White Nights: too much bad to mediocre stuff, too little good stuff.
The plot is promising. A Russian ballet star who defected to the US is flying to a performance in Japan, but his airplane is forced to crashland in the Soviet Union. The concept of what the Soviets would do with an important defector who found himself back in Russia is full of potential, which James Goldman and Eric Hughes, the screenwriters, fail to realize. They match the returned defector with Gregory Hines, a New York tap dancer who defected to Russia during the Vietnam War. While this matchup is improbable, it, too, has some potential. However, since Hines is clearly disaffected with the Soviet Union already, there is little doubt that he will team up with Baryshnikov eventually. A far more interesting story might have resulted from two defectors, each firmly convinced he had made the right choice, trying to persuade each other.
Hackford apparently allowed An Officer and a Gentleman to delude him into believing that he is a great director of romances. White Nights is burdened with two romantic subplots, one involving Hines' Russian wife (Isabella Rossellini), the other Baryshnikov's old flame from the Kirov (Helen Mirren). Neither works very well or adds anything to the film. Finally, getting down to business, the filmmakers have Baryshnikov and Hines join forces to escape. Too little, too late.
Hackford directs poorly, worse than in Against All Odds. The pace is dreadfully slow, as if Hackford wanted us to think about what he is showing us. Unfortunately, what he presents doesn't bear much thought, as it is extremely shallow. Whenever he is forced to pick up the pace, as in the dance scenes, or the airplane crash, or in a couple of action scenes, Hackford does much better. Each of these scenes is separated from the others by fifteen to twenty minutes of dreary plot exposition played at a snail's pace, though. One of Hackford's few interesting ideas is to play a chase scene rather differently, with the chased unaware that they are pursued and that time is about to run out. Even here, much more could have been done.
Baryshnikov and Hines are both good, as good as the script allows. Hines is burdened with a pretty badly written drunken monolog, and Baryshnikov must deal with lines that seem mostly conceived to prove to us that he knows all of the words one can't say on American television. Both men dance superbly, and both have strong screen presences. Perhaps it is too early to tell, but Baryshnikov seems far more likely to have a career in acting than his predecessor, Rudolph Nureyev.
The women's parts are much worse, and capable actresses like Mirren and Geraldine Page (playing Baryshnikov's agent) are defeated. I found Rossellini, the daughter of director Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, almost unbearable. Forced to deal with terrible lines and Hackford's insistence that she nearly constantly be on the point of bursting into tears, she resembles one of those caricatured paintings of children with huge, soulful eyes, a genre of art I must confess I've always loathed.
White Nights does feature some very fine dancing, with the principle choreography done by Twyla Tharp. The opening ballet is done by someone else, the tap dancing was improvised by Hines, and Baryshnikov did some of his own ballet choreography. The various talents have cooperated to produce some excellent dancing, which Hackford handles fairly well, so well that when he cuts away from dancing to a concurrent scene of suspense, one wishes he would get back to the dancing. If White Nights were only and hour and a half long, then the dancing would probably have been enough to redeem the film.
White Nights features some rather unpleasant racist talk. This is put into the mouth of the principle villain, with Baryshnikov pretending to go along to fool him. I am afraid that it was so offensive to some members of the audience I saw the film with that this distinction wasn't enough to appease them. Considering how blunt and clumsy this business was, I can understand why they were upset. Those who feel strongly about such matters are warned. Since there is so little reason to attend White Nights, they would miss little and save themselves aggravation by skipping this film.
For that matter, everyone else might as well pass on White Nights. This film is perfect for seeing on a videocassette, as this format would allow one to skip from one dance sequence to the next, passing right over all of the dull stuff in between. The loss of big screen resolution is worth it, in this case. Unless one is a big fan of Baryshnikov or Hines, White Nights will not hold enough attractions to repay over two hours of attention.
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