Thursday, January 26, 2006
Politics shackle the characters in The White Countess. The movie, which will be forever famous as the final Merchant Ivory collaboration, opens in 1936 Shanghai, where a family of Russian royals has settled after escaping the Bolsheviks. The extended clan now lives in poverty, supported only by Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), who nightly puts on rouge and lipstick to dance with the lonely hearts at a nightclub and turn the occasional trick. Her relatives, who apparently contribute nothing but criticism to the household, do not approve, especially because of the effect Sofia might have on her young daughter, Katya (Madeleine Daly).
They shouldn’t worry: The only character here who really falls under the sway of the aristocratic taxi dancer is Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a former American diplomat and current barfly recently blinded by a terrorist attack. He’s been dreaming of opening the perfect nightclub: classy, politically diverse, and filled with women who exhibit “a balance between the erotic and the tragic.” He stumbles into Sofia’s erotic/tragic sphere; she helps him avoid some potential muggers lurking outside the definitely imperfect nightclub she works in; and, soon enough, one handsome, guarded expat is a lot closer to realizing his vision.
The White Countess, also the name of Jackson’s utopian establishment, is a characteristically stately if sometimes sluggish finale to producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory’s 44-year partnership. The gloomy monochrome of the Belinsky home and its wan inhabitants is meant to contrast with the vitality of Jackson’s nightclub. Though here, where a significant portion of the movie takes place, vitality is represented by a house full of clientele watching performances by ballerinas and people dressed as cats.
Jackson, though pleased to have gotten the joint running, senses there’s something missing. Better booze? A livelier band? Nope: “political tension,” in his words. Although despondent over his failed peace efforts while with the League of Nations, Jackson still has a shred of hope in him. He theorizes that if members of opposite factions socialized, they’d begin to see their commonality instead of just their differences.
The screenplay, penned by Remains of the Day scribe Kazuo Ishiguro, shares that film’s theme of isolation and how it might be overcome. Jackson and Sofia’s agreement to have a strictly professional relationship, despite their obvious attraction, is referenced pretty much every time they begin talking about their personal lives—which is often.
Consistently strong, however, are the performances. Fiennes’ Jackson is similar to his character in The Constant Gardener: stubborn, wounded, and believably risk-taking. Richardson’s Sofia is understated—quiet but beguiling in her seductions and incomprehensibly submissive around her family.
The White Countess becomes more worthy of its excellent performances during its final chapter, in which all hell breaks loose. Japan’s imminent takeover of Shanghai sparks a mass exodus—just as Jackson and Sofia agree to get close to each other. Everyone is out on the streets, frantically trying to execute their choices and changes of mind among the chaos, which is rendered with almost palpable urgency by cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
Removed from Merchant Ivory’s upholstered interiors, the not quite romance seems nearly as grand as the world’s conflicts. Finally, in the last act, The White Countess feels real and compelling—a fit conclusion to both the film and an acclaimed partnership.
THE WHITE COUNTESS ( * * ½ )
Directed by James Ivory.
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave.
(PG-13, 138 mins.) At the Osio Cinemas.