WHITE COUNTESS, THE
Shanghai in 1936 is a hotpot of political intrigue, refugees escaping turmoil, gathering military forces, international business, and underworld culture. Two people caught in this maelstrom forge a bond on the brink of the Japanese invasion: the beautiful exiled Russian countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson), reduced by circumstances to supporting her young daughter Katya (Madelaine Daly) and her aunts (Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave) as a dance bar girl; and Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) a blinded former diplomat, devastated by the loss of his family in political violence, and disillusioned by the world. He finds a way to make his dream come true, opening an elegant nightclub, The White Countess, where he can shut out the chaos and tragedy that surround him.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
James Ivory has cast Britain's acting aristocracy to play post-Revolution Russian aristocracy, which brings much gravitas and many subtle performance highs to this drawn out story set in 1936/7 Shanghai. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novel, Remains of the Day, was one of Merchant and Ivory's big hits (via Ruth Prawer Jhablava's adaptation), this original screenplay feels just like the adaptation of a novel that probably should have stayed within handsome covers.
Fascinating though it is, and made with the duo's usual care for period detail and rich visuals, The White Countess drains our patience with its meandering, wordy screenplay, which is elegant, classy but uninvolving from the start. The exiled Russian aristocrats who live in Shanghai's sidestreets don't generate much sympathy with their imperial manners, except of course the heroine, Countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson). Richardson finds the perfect balance between the sweet and feminine Sofia and the aristocratic upbringing as a Countess.
Ralph Fiennes is engaging enough as the blind ex-diplomat, Jackson, wisely deciding to downplay the blindness as a source of acting business, and yet not quite able to enthuse us about his predicament as a widower. Sadly, the romantic passion that might ignite the story is missing, the space taken up by a platonic and intellectual liaison that even at the end is subdued and prim.
The Redgraves are great as scheming and sour old aristocrats booted out of their home, retaining their sense of propriety in a world going mad around them. There is also excellent and pivotal support from Hiroyuki Sanada as Matsuda, the mysterious Japanese man who befriends Jackson.
The film struggles to create and maintain enough tension until the last half hour, when the Japanese begin their invasion of Shanghai. But even here, the military scenes are rather weak, as is the progression of Jackson from honourable ex-diplomat to nightclub owner via a single extravagant punt at the races. These less effective elements are balanced by excellent production values, beautiful images and a mood of history; but none of that is enough to give us a lump in the throat.
Producer Ismail Merchant died on May 25, 2005; this was his last production.
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WHITE COUNTESS, THE (M)
CAST: Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, Madeleine Potter, Madeleine Daly, Madeleine Cooper, John Wood, Hiroyuki Sanada, Allan Corduner, Luoyong Wang
PRODUCER: Ismail Merchant
DIRECTOR: James Ivory
SCRIPT: Kazuo Ishiguro
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Christopher Doyle, Yiu-Fai Lai
EDITOR: John David Allen
MUSIC: Richard Robbins
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Andrew Sanders
RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sony
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 27, 2006
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: September 20, 2006
VIDEO RELEASE: Sony Pictures Entertainment