WHEN Rudolf Nureyev arrived in Paris in 1961 he visited The Louvre. Nothing unusual in that, every tourist does it, but there was only one painting he wanted to spend hours with, and it was not the Mona Lisa.

The Raft of the Medusa, by Theodore Gericault, depicts the aftermath of a French ship running aground off Mauritania in 1816. Some 147 survivors clambered on board the raft; 13 days later only 15 were still alive, the rest lost to dehydration, hunger, and cannibalism.

One can see how the tale of survival would have appealed to Nureyev. There was nothing about his life which suggested he was destined for greatness. Born on a train in Siberia to desperately poor parents, he was late to training as a dancer and he fought the Soviet authorities, who could have ended his career at any time, all the way. Yet he survived. The White Crow, a captivating if overlong look at Nureyev’s life up to his defection to the West, shows how and why.

This is Ralph Fiennes’ third film as director after the equally impressive Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman. Also deserving of admiration is his performance in front of the cameras as Alexander Pushkin, the ballet master who helped marshal Nureyev’s talent. No fake Russki accents for Fiennes – it is fluent Russian all the way.

The White Crow, which takes its title from the nickname classmates gave the skinny, solitary, young Rudi, opens as the Kirov Ballet arrives in Paris. Nureyev, played by the Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko, already speaks English, having learned it on his own initiative. Western audiences have heard reports of his genius and he lives up to his billing and more.

Weeks later, and much to his KGB minders’ relief, the visit is coming to an end. Fiennes, working from a screenplay by David Hare, shows his skill as a director in the film’s final third as the Russian dancers arrive at the airport in Paris to take a flight to London. Not for Nureyev, though, who is told he has been called back to Russia.

Though most will know how the confrontation between the Soviet authorities and the dancer played out, Fiennes paces his finish like the best of thrillers, the air crackling with tension. It is just a pity one too many flashbacks to Nureyev’s childhood and youth mean it takes such a long time to get to this point.

Fiennes and Adele Exarchopoulos, playing Nureyev’s French girlfriend, turn in fine performances, but roses and raptures, please, for Ivenko, who is not only as beautiful as Nureyev, and dances sublimely, he can act, besides.