The White Countess is the final film from the partnership, both professional and personal, of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant (who died last year). The new film marks something of a return to form after their disastrous Le Divorce and tepid The Golden Bowl. In fact, this is probably the most satisfyingly realized of their films since Remains of the Day.
That does not, of course, mean that it isn’t still a film for specialized tastes; all Merchant-Ivory films are. There’s a literary-mindedness and a slowness of pace that’s impossible to mistake. More character- than plot-driven, the duo’s films often lack for much in the way of incident, and even at their most heated (Maurice, for example), there’s a degree of restraint that can be off-putting. It’s as if Merchant-Ivory films all came in handsome bindings of Moroccan leather with gilt-edged pages that need to be cut open with a paper knife to be read. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it requires of viewers a patience and an appreciation for well-crafted objects of beauty for their own sake.
The White Countess is very much in this same mold, though the fact that it contains scenes of war and the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1936 very nearly makes it the Merchant-Ivory film that comes closest to the description “action-packed” — but in a very relative sense.
Ralph Fiennes plays Mr. Jackson, a blind American ex-diplomat living in Shanghai, who dreams of creating and owning the “perfect bar,” a concept he shares early in the film with the enigmatic Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada, The Last Samurai). Natasha Richardson plays Sofia, an exiled White Russian countess, who supports her ridiculously too-good-to-work family by working as a taxi dancer — and occasionally, as a prostitute — for a Shanghai bar.
When circumstances allow Jackson to create his dream bar, he installs the naturally aristocratic Sofia as its hostess and names his creation after her, The White Countess. But his brief satisfaction gives way soon to feeling that the bar lacks something — political tension — so he proceeds to carefully introduce this to his establishment. But while this is taking place, Matsuda, who genuinely likes Jackson, is setting the stage for the invasion of Shanghai, so that the real world of political tension intrudes upon, and ultimately overtakes, Jackson’s manufactured fantasy.
That and the underplayed romance between Jackson and Sofia is really all there is to the story. But the story isn’t what the film is all about. It is instead about dreams — Jackson’s dream of the perfect bar, Sofia’s dream of a settled life, her family’s dream of a return to comfortable respectability — and the death of those hopes, as well as, finally, about the birth of new dreams and possibilities. Being a Merchant-Ivory film, however, The White Countess doesn’t hand any of this to the viewer on a platter, but allows it simply to exist as part of the fabric of the overall work.
Beautifully designed, photographed, costumed and acted, the movie is rarely short of exquisite in its physical being. It’s certainly streets ahead of the largely studio-fabricated canned exotica of Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha, even while sharing a similar look. But despite its qualities — and the undeniable treat of seeing Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave and Vanessa’s daughter, Natasha Richardson, share the screen — there’s a sense of being held at arm’s length from the emotions of its characters.
The result is a beautiful movie with an intriguing central theme and cast that is far easier to admire than to actually like. Even so, at a time when cinemas are flooded with the usual February dreck, The White Countess comes across as a breath of exquisitely rarefied fresh air. Rated PG-13 for some violent images and thematic elements.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke