The White Countess

January, 2006, Drama

Directed by:James Ivory

Starring:Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Hiroyuki Sanada, Lynn Redgrave, Allan Corduner, and Madeleine Potter

The film-making team of James Ivory and Ishmael Merchant has brought so many interesting projects to the screen over the years that their last effort, (Merchant died last year) probably deserves to be seen out of respect to film history, if nothing else. Countess is a period piece, set in Shanghai in the mid-1930’s as China suffered the invasion of Japan and the simultaneous civil war between forces loyal to Mao on the one hand and Chang Kai-Shek on the other. The movie features a stellar cast of Brits, (Ralph Finnes, Natasha Richardson & two Redgraves, Vanessa and Lynn) along with the meticulous attention to period detail that’s always been one of the hallmarks of this unique pair of filmmakers. Alas, as a swan song to their productive collaboration, the finished product doesn’t rank  as one of their best efforts. Yet even mediocre Merchant/Ivory contains elements worth the price of admission, and this one’s no exception.

Finnes plays Todd Jackson, a former U.S. diplomat blinded in an accident that also took his young daughter’s life. Now a widower living in Shanghai fronting the business interests of various Western companies, he decides to retreat from the world around him by opening a posh nightclub that will provide a meeting place for the national/ethnic/racial flotsam the city’s mixed fortunes have brought together in uneasy cohabitation. In order to provide the requisite touch of mysterious glamour to his establishment, Jackson recruits Sofia Belinksi, a penniless Russian countess played by Ms. Richardson, to act as the hostess for his new venture. She comes equipped with (1) a young daughter, (2) a family desperately trying to retain the gentility of their former status as members of the pre-revolutionary gentry in St. Petersburg and unfortunately, (3) a resume that contains her career as an often round-heeled taxi dancer. 

As the events of 1936-38 unfold, the former diplomat finds it increasingly difficult to shield himself from the events going on in the real world while the former aristocrat grows ever better at her job and fonder of her employer. It requires an invasion of the city by the Japanese military to foment the crisis which will resolve the fate of this curiously-matched pair, along with that of those most precious to them.

As is always true of Merchant/Ivory productions, the cast is uniformily fine, but the script by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, (Remains of the Day) offers the audience archetypes rather than characters; as a result, the ensemble cast gives little speeches that don’t do much to establish real credibility. This presents Finnes with the greatest challenge, because he employs an American accent that oscillates somewhere between Hoagy Carmichael and Avril Harriman. 

The depiction of violent regime change has been an interesting sub-genre for many years; as movies like Havana and The Killing Fields which preceded it, White Countess comes alive when it pulls back from its examination of individual lives to focus on the chaos which occurs when entire populations suddenly find themselves in harm’s way. When that occurs, the accumulation of acutely-observed detail in costuming, artifacts, hairstyles, etc. lends vibrant authenticity to a movie that otherwise struggles to be more than just languid dialogue delivered with the professional polish one expects from a cast of this caliber.

Here’s a movie that looks terrific, presents suitably exotic characters in an endlessly fascinating period of history…but which winds up being stilted rather than engrossing. Place the blame on the screenwriter, or perhaps on the now deceased producer for not demanding a re-write before shooting began.

The verdict? Lovely to look at and listen to, but ultimately not as interesting as it should have been.


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