A certain bookishness always steeps into Merchant-Ivory productions, as if they're not truly movies but dust-jacket art put in motion. Even when American director James Ivory and Indian producer Ismail Merchant film an original screenplay like The White Countess, you can't help but envision it as having been a book first. Didn't I see a leather-bound White Countess at Barnes & Noble? Surely whole chapters of prose recounted the lives of the lead characters: a blind, expatriate American diplomat and a broke, exiled Russian countess in 1930s Shanghai.
Although neither Merchant nor Ivory are English, criticism sticks to their films for having too much British-style emotional reserve, making their characters' passions feel secondary to the impeccable set decorations and elegant costumes. Some of their films, like their crown jewel Howard's End, find a cinematic richness worthy of great literature, but The White Countess lives down to their reputation for must and dust.
Blind -- and occasionally blind-drunk -- Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) prowls Shanghai's streets as a connoisseur of its nightspots and watering holes. A former diplomat, Todd aspires to establish a nightclub that would be a cosmopolitan oasis in a chaotic world. Fiennes, on a roll following his diverse turns as Voldemort, Wallace & Gromit's animated nemesis, and the title role of The Constant Gardener, makes some more eccentric choices here. The actor's diction and flat accent have a stagy artificiality, sounding less like a 1930s Yank than an American character actor of the period, like a Joseph Cotton type. But maybe that's the point: Todd would feel right at home in such exotic film locations as The Third Man's wartime Vienna or Casablanca's North Africa.
Todd envisions a woman as his club's centerpiece, a femme fatale whose personality would balance "the erotic and the tragic." Not in so many words, he seeks a Marlene Dietrich type, and he finds one in Sofia (Natasha Richardson), a former Russian countess who supports her destitute family as a taxi-dancer and occasional prostitute.
Richardson infuses Sofia with the emotional strength to survive in a heartless, demeaning lifestyle but not the reserve to resist her monstrously selfish family, including her mother and aunt (played by Richardson's real aunt and mother, Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, respectively). Rather than learn compassion for working people, the fallen Russian aristocrats simply transfer their class hatred to Sofia, as if resenting their dependence on her. Even as they pocket Sofia's earnings, they shame her for her profession and drive a wedge between Sofia and her young daughter.
Scripted by The Remains of the Day author Kazuo Ishiguro, The White Countess should have an atmosphere quivering with both potential violence and sexual possibilities. Todd hires Sofia to be hostess of his new club, the White Countess, and their professional relationship turns into a wary courtship. Meanwhile, World War II looms and Todd's seemingly sympathetic drinking buddy Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) may be a spy in advance of a Japanese invasion. But even during a montage of Japanese expansionism and Chinese anti-Communist oppression, The White Countess feels anemic and unaroused by fraught events.
Some heavy-handed symbolism depicts the White Countess as an idealized location with heavy doors intended to "keep out the world." Todd once had the reputation as "the last hope of the League of Nations," and perhaps his swanky nightspot, doomed by the rush of history, serves as a model for naive Western institutions that fail to impose utopian values on Eastern cultures. When war finally breaks out, the film achieves some melodramatic intensity, but it's too little, too late.
The White Countess marks the end of the 40-year Merchant-Ivory collaboration, brought to an unexpected close by Merchant's death in 2005. The film's haunting final image now serves as a melancholy valediction: An Asian trumpeter plays "After You've Gone" on the deck of a crowded refugee ship in the morning light. The delicate moment, in its blend of Eastern and Western aesthetics, exemplifies the cross-cultural virtues of Merchant-Ivory. At best, their films speak volumes.
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