Classic Woman-Centric Movie Review: “White Nights” (1985)

Happy Thursday afternoon, Persephoneers! This week’s Classic Woman-Centric Movie Review has been moved up to allow for a very special Linotte Reads Fifty Shades of Grey on Friday. Since we moved up the date for the post, I thought we would move up the decade from which I would pick this week’s movie. So this week I’m reviewing “White Nights,” made in 1985, which starts Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines, Isabella Rossellini, and Helen Mirren and is directed by Taylor Hackford.

Movie poster for white nights, with two small silhouettes of men running on snow against a sunset
A poster from the film.

The movie opens with Nikolai Rodchenko (Baryshnikov), a ballet dancer who defected from the Soviet Union eight years before, as he and his ballet company are on their way to a performance in Japan. The plane has to make an emergency landing in the Soviet Union, much to Nikolai’s fear. KGB officer Colonel Chaiko realizes that Nikolai is on the plane, and he takes Nikolai into custody. Chaiko also calls upon African-American tap dancer Raymond Greenwood, who has defected from the United States to the Soviet Union himself. Raymond and his wife, Darya (Rossellini), help convey Raymond to Leningrad, where it’s revealed that Chaiko wants Nikolai to dance in the opening performance at the Kirov. Chaiko even brings Nikolai’s old girlfriend, Galena (Mirren), to try and convince him to dance, but Nikolai still refuses. Nikolai and Raymond both find out that the reasons for defecting from their old countries to their adopted ones are much the same, and taut circumstances and their mutual love for dance cements their friendship.


Still shot of Baryshnikov and Hines dancing
The two dancers together.

Nikolai is still determined to escape, and it’s Galina who decides to help him, but who decides to stay in Russia because she has built her own life there. He tells Raymond of his plan, and Raymond, who has just found out about Darya’s pregnancy and who wants to give his child a good life, decides to take Darya and go with Nikolai. Raymond and Nikolai arrange a daring escape plan, and the movie climaxes at their daring escape and the uncertainty of whether or not they will all make it.

The movie touches on several different themes, one being the idealized versions that each man had of his adopted country. Nikolai defected from Russia because he enjoyed the freedom of the West. Raymond, who was a disaffected Vietnam veteran, had defected to the Soviet Union because he was disillusioned with the racism and imperialism of the American military industrial complex. But even while he’s in living in the Soviet Union, the authorities still keep a very close eye on Raymond and his wife. The constant scrutiny

Hines and Rossellini crouched in a window frame. She's roped into an improvised zipline.
A daring escape.

from the KGB wears on him, and this is what drives him to return to the United States, because it’s no way for any child of his to grow up. Both men , though, have suffered their share of tragedy from it. The Soviet government has made sure that no one really knows who Nikolai was, and Raymond has been disowned by his family.

We also see two different romantic stories, one between Nikolai and Galena, and the other between Raymond and Darya. Nikolai had suddenly left Galena in the U.S.S.R. without a word, and despite the government’s interrogations and surveillance she was able to start again and remain a star in the world of Russian ballet. They both still love each other, but they each understands the other’s reasons. Raymond and Darya, on the other hand, are a strong couple who have built their life together. It’s not only their love and theater and of the arts that binds them, but the desire for a new start someday, somewhere.

I’m not going to give you the ending, but if you remember the old Lionel Richie song, “Say You, Say Me,” which is the title track to this movie, you’ll be as teary-eyed as I am at the end.  Also from this film is “Separate Lives,” sung by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin.   Add to this that the tap dance choreography was devised by Gregory Hines, while the additional choreography was devised by Baryshnikov, it’s a very enjoyable film.

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