Frankly, I don't see why everybody is so up in arms about the quality of this movie. I, for one, don't need to preface my review with a disclaimer that only its dance sequences can be enjoyed. I happen to think that it's a pretty excellent cinematographic work overall. Let me elaborate.
The camera work here is among the most original and clever out there. It's incredibly dynamic and energetic, offering unusual perspectives, delivering great close-ups, and skillfully capturing the sweeping wide spaces. An unusually large amount of footage is devoted to the city landscapes of St. Petersburg - a rarity in American flicks on Russian themes. It's all the more jarring, however, that despite attempts to ensure authenticity of the setting, at least the first couple of car rides seem to have been done in a stationary vehicle and plastered rather crudely against the city background. But this is a forgivable and almost charming flaw, considering the film's limited budget and the release year of 1985.
The film is a paradox of sorts, showcasing interesting performances from Rossellini and Hines, two actors who have since been totally under-appreciated. There's good chemistry between the impressionable and high-strung duet of Darya and Raymond. Jerzy Skolimovski (Colonel Chaiko) is the classical cunning villain with a Slavic flare. Baryshnikov himself seems a bit rigid and somewhat formulaic as Nikolay Rodchenko. That is when he's not dancing, of course. For when he dances, he unleashes all imaginable and unimaginable potential.
Obviously, the story line is sketched out in broad, exaggerated strokes. But I bet the filmmakers actually expected the overall theatricality to be taken with a grain of salt. Besides, the subject matter discussed wasn't keen on subtleties. The events depicted were behind-the-scenes operations all right, but they were as blunt and theatrically bizarre as can be. And as for those who think the circumstances and emotions of the dissidence and emigration (or defection in this case) experience are overblown - brush up on mid-20th century history and get a grip on things. Not only had the Big Brother's machinery of state control and suppression been well oiled for decades in the Soviet Union and its satellites, but the shadow of this absurd, merciless beast hangs over many of those nations still. Folks, the fictionalized account of Nikolay Rodchenko is merely a -slightly- glamorized and dramatized version of real life experience of countless victims of the era.
The scenes of Nikolay and Darya fleeing through the deserted streets of Leningrad and the subsequent humiliation they experience in front of the American embassy send chills down my spine every time I watch the movie. That threat and that danger are very real to me even though my emigration experience in the 1990s was simply peachy in retrospect and comparison. Just as disturbing and sobering, by the way, is Rodchenko's reception by the Americans and the so-called international community inside the gates. He to them is but a nimble exotic specimen...
Anyhow, let me dismount my high horse and reiterate, seconding the earlier reviews, that `White Nights' features superb, matchless dancing; and, to miss it is a deathly sin. Well, almost...
There are essentially four dance highlights in the movie. Choreography is mainly by Baryshnikov, Hines, and, very importantly, Twyla Tharp. Baryshnikov's duet with Florence Faure in the opening credits is bound to leave your breathless. It is sheer perfection - immensely inventive and impeccably executed. The second instance when you'll forget that you could blink and breathe is during the 11 rubles for 11 pirouettes number. He does it with a godly effortlessness. Hines' and Baryshnikov's dance studio number is fascinating to watch. And, then
Then, there's Mikhail's solo to Vysotsky's tape on the stage of the Kirov theatre. Its beauty is literally painful and words can never describe it.
If you haven't seen `White Nights' or haven't seen it more than once, you're denying yourself an unearthly pleasure. And you can snicker at my high-flown sighs and exclamations all you want :)