April 18, 2006 -- “The White Countess” is a story set in a volatile historic period about two emotionally repressed people in love who spend most of their time avoiding the subject. The producer-director team of Merchant and Ivory have made many such movies, including “Howard's End” and “Remains of the Day.” This is their 47th and last collaboration with the death of producer Ismail Merchant last year after this film had wrapped. You can depend on several things with a Merchant-Ivory film, sky-high production values, lavish sets, wonderful costumes and elegant, emotionally-repressed upper-crust characters. This film is more of the same.
Ralph Fiennes (“The Constant Gardener”) stars as Todd Jackson, a disillusioned former diplomat with a tragic past leading a desultory existence in Shanghai in 1936, just before World War II. Jackson likes to while away his empty hours in run-down bars drinking away his painful memories. He does have a glimmer of ambition, however. He wants to start his own club, a kind of “Rick's Place” in Shanghai with just the right mix of political intrigue, music, class and seediness. One night he meets an exiled Russian countess, Sofia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson of “Maid in Manhattan”) in a seedy bar. She is the perfect hostess for the club he has imagined in every detail. She has just the right mixture of classiness and sorrow.
One day, in a stroke of luck, he gets the money he needs to open his nightclub, The White Countess. It is just as he imagined it. He hires Sofia to be his hostess and everything goes swimmingly. He is befriended by a mysterious Japanese businessman, Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada of “The Last Samurai”) who helps him attract the just the right political mix of clientelle. Clouds gather on the horizon, however, as the Japanese threaten to invade Shanghai. Sofia and her family of exiled Russian aristocracy desperately need to get out of Shanghai before that happens. Jackson, meanwhile, desperately tries to keep the chaos of the world outside the heavy doors of his nightclub. He just wants to be left alone.
The problem with a lot of Merchant-Ivory films is that nothing ever happens. The seething passions remain under the surface and the films often end with a dull, tragic thud of non-action. In this film, happily, something does happen. Jackson is a man determined to drink himself to death and he is not easily stirred. It takes bombs and bayonets to get him going, but he finally gets up and starts moving. It is not a very believable ending, but I found it satisfying. That is more than you get from some Merchant-Ivory films. The acting is superb from the entire cast, which includes Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, child actor Madeleine Daly, John Wood (“Chocolat”), Allan Corduner and Madeleine Potter. The location shots in Shanghai, the sets and costumes are as immaculate and colorful as one would expect form a Merchant-Ivory production.
The film is slow-moving and the emotions lie below the surface, as expected. If you can tolerate that, or if you are a fan of Merchant-Ivory films, you will probably like this one. I've liked some of their films and disliked others. The worst combine a kind of claustophobic, stately stuffiness with mannered, hopeless upper class ennui. I liked this one because it does have an emotional payoff of sorts. It isn't much, but by Merchant-Ivory standards it is an orgasm of raw emotions. This film rates a C+.
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