Even with Richardson’s radiant acting, Ivory’s swan song is a lacquered dud
If you think the Kuomintang is something astronauts drink, you’re going to have a hard time following “The White Countess,” director James Ivory’s final film with his late partner, producer Ismail Merchant.
On the plus side, it involves a bit of 20th-century history that hasn’t been done to death in the movies: the beginning of the second Chinese-Japanese War in 1937. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s screenplay assumes viewers will be as familiar with the background events as they are with what was happening simultaneously in Europe: Ishiguro treats those events with unbecoming subtlety.
In Shanghai in 1936, we meet two people just before their lives intersect. Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a blind former American diplomat who lets a business keep him on their payroll because they feel sorry for him. He’s admired for having been present at the birth of the League of Nations, albeit as hardly more than an observer. What he really wants to do is open “the bar of my dreams” in Shanghai. A connoisseur of nightlife, he knows how he wants to do it, including hiring women who have the right balance between “the erotic and the tragic.”
Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson) is one of many refugees from the Russian Revolution who have settled in China but fallen on hard times. Widowed, she is the sole support for her Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave), Uncle Peter (John Wood), mother-in-law Olga (Lynn Redgrave), sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter) and 10-year-old daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly), most of whom are unappreciative. They’re embarrassed because she earns their keep any way she can. There’s a bit of a Cinderella vibe here.
Out on the town one night, Jackson is admonished by a young man from his company (Lee Pace, who played Calpurnia Addams in “A Soldier’s Girl”), befriended by a mysterious Japanese man (Hiroyuki Sanada) and finally saved from being robbed by Sofia. He only has to hear her voice to know she’s the one he wants for the centerpiece of his bar.
One year later Jackson has opened the bar, “The White Countess,” and Sofia indeed works there. But their relationship is strictly business, and they don’t get involved in each other’s lives on the outside. The White Countess has heavy doors to keep the world out, but Jackson wants more of a mixed clientele so there will be some “political tension” inside. What he really needs is Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli to be sure no one misses the parallels to “Cabaret.”
As the Japanese invasion becomes imminent, people start scrambling to get out of Shanghai. The Belinskys have a chance to go to Hong Kong for a price. In the film’s final half-hour, we finally get some spectacle and pyrotechnics as the Japanese attack and the population tries to evacuate the city. It may be too little too late for those viewers who have been bored or confused for the first 105 minutes.
Like most of Ivory’s films, “The White Countess” is slow but not everyone’s idea of dull. It’s not in a league with his best work but far from his worst. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle is competent but not spectacularly good as in his films with Wong Kar-wai. The varied music in the bars is an interesting mix of American jazz and swing, Russian folk songs and American pop sung in Chinese.
The acting is fine, with Richardson especially radiant, but the film too rarely catches fire. You might say the problem is “The White Countess” is too beige.
IVORY SAYS STRESS KILLED MERCHANT
After a 44-year partnership that produced “A Room with a View,” “Maurice” and other fastidiously costumed and decorated films, the team of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, pictured, was broken up by death. Merchant died last May, during post-production on “The White Countess.” He was 68. While Ivory delivers the project to movie screens without his partner, the director blames Merchant’s death on stress ulcers, according to a recent interview with ContactMusic.com
Ivory said that Merchant’s stress level peaked when investors refused to sign appropriate papers for the project, and that was what ultimately killed him.
“It was a horrible strain on Ismail, that’s for sure. And then he broke his ankle. Then he had a bleeding ulcer, which he’d suffered from before,” Ivory said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of January 20, 2006.