Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 08, 2006
The White Countess
Starring Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson. Directed by James Ivory. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro. Rated PG-13

Despite intrigue and exotic locations, The White Countess is a bore.


The partnership of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory turned out its first movie back in 1965 with Shakespeare-Wallah. Over the next 40 years, their names became synonymous with pretty, well-behaved period pieces that seldom carried any emotional sting. The White Countess is the last effort from this team, as Merchantís death nine months ago put an end to their collaboration. With any filmmakers whoíve been around this long, you want to see them exit on a high note. You donít want their final outing to be a thoroughgoing snooze. Unfortunately, thatís what happens.

This despite the promising story material, courtesy of screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (whose novel The Remains of the Day was adapted by Merchant and Ivory into an overrated Oscar-winning film in 1993). The filmís set in the late 1930s in Shanghai, a city awash in European and American expatriates. The movie begins when two of these meet: Sofia Belinskaya (Natasha Richardson), a Russian countess who supports her family in exile by working as a taxi dancer and sometime prostitute, and Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a blind, hard-drinking U.S. diplomat whom Sofia artfully prevents from being mugged outside the nightclub where she works.

An awful lot happens to these characters in 138 minutes of running time, so why does the film still manage to feel poky and empty? Movies directed by 77-year-old men donít tend to be swift and ruthless and economical. Even so, the ennui that sets in here is pretty severe. Perhaps thatís because many of the storylines play out so predictably. Or maybe itís just because we got lost in the family tree: Sofiaís dealings with her ungrateful, tyrannical mother (Lynn Redgrave, Richardsonís real-life aunt) are there purely to generate sympathy for the countess, and so are the scenes with her young daughter (Madeleine Daly). The presence of Sofiaís downtrodden aunt (Vanessa Redgrave, Richardsonís real-life mother) is solely to provide a plot point. Richardson is quite beautiful, and though she does some fine work as a pampered scion of wealth forced to rely on her survival instincts, she doesnít have enough presence to carry this epic by herself.

Toddís side of the story fares even worse. For a good part of this movie, the loss of his sight corresponds with his loss of ideals. (A man who attended Versailles conferences and once sought to effect world peace has now reduced his ambitions to opening a bar in Shanghai, which he succeeds in doing.) This is worryingly metaphoric, and even though a plot revelation forges a more concrete connection between the two events, it has little impact because itís hinted at so heavily.

Then thereís the character of a too-smooth Japanese diplomat named Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) who cozies up to Todd. Even if you donít know from history that Japanese troops will march into Shanghai and wreak havoc, Matsuda still clearly has ulterior motives for putting certain people in Toddís bar, and it isnít credible for a second that Todd would fall for such a baldfaced schemer. Maybe it would be if he were depicted as hopelessly naÔve or permanently stuck in a drunken haze. Instead, weíre supposed to think that these two men have become real friends and Matsuda is trading on Toddís trust in him, but their lengthy conversations are played as if the two actors have never been in the same room before. Fiennes always looks vaguely uncomfortable, and decidedly so when he portrays Americans. Heís positively wooden in this film, and his role as a diplomat only serves to remind you that he played a similar role with much more force in The Constant Gardener last year.

I still havenít gotten around to mentioning the other plotlines, some of which involve Sofiaís sister (Madeleine Potter), Toddís colleagues at the State Department, and a Jewish tailor (Allan Corduner) living downstairs from the Belinskayas. These threads are all dropped for overlong stretches before theyíre picked up again, because Ivory would rather linger in Toddís nightclub, taking in the music along with the customers in their evening attire imbibing cocktails. The club, and the movie in general, arenít even that interesting to look at, despite the authentic Chinese locations and the surprisingly pedestrian efforts of cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

The movie buys a much-needed dose of adrenaline during the inevitable climax when the Japanese invade, and chaos envelops the characters as they desperately try to leave the city. You can interpret this as a final burst of energy from Merchant and Ivory, but it still comes way too late to compensate for the lifelessness of The White Countessí first two hours. They should have been able to make a better movie from a disillusioned bartender in an exotic location who falls in love and finds the courage to do something meaningful while a warís going on outside. Just ask the makers of Casablanca.

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