The high hopes that arise from the reunion of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and writer Kazuo Ishiguro, who were teamed in 1993’s stunning “The Remains of the Day” (although in that instance Ishiguro’s novel was adapted for the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), are dashed in “The White Countess,” a high-minded, elegantly-mounted and starrily-cast but dramatically inert and emotionally desiccated snoozer.
Like their earlier film, this one is set in the troubled days preceding the outbreak of the Second World War, but instead of the England of the 1930s, the action is in the Far East, specifically in the Shanghai of mid-decade, when China was threatened by imminent Japanese invasion and scores of refugees from other trouble spots were looking for ways to escape the mainland to Hong Kong. And also like “Remains,” it involves a muffled, long-gestating romance, but this time the characters aren’t a buttoned-down butler and a more freewheeling housekeeper. They’re Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a blind and embittered American ex-diplomat now engaged in business consulting, and Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), an expatriate Russian countess who supports her large and (except for her daughter) decidedly unappreciative family by playing the role of female companion (read high-class call-girl) at a local dance club.
It’s precisely the sort of club that Jackson regularly patronizes. He’s a connoisseur of these establishments, you see, and has always dreamed of running the perfect such place: the idea is that dejected by the failure of diplomacy to make a better world after World War I (and by the continuing violence that led to the loss of not only his eyesight but also his beloved daughter), he desires to create a flawless little world on a much smaller scale, one that can serve as his protective bubble against the reality of his unhappiness and the larger geopolitical circumstances he now chooses to ignore. (You can say that he’s like Rick Blaine, trying to cut himself off from the real world because of the losses he’s suffered.) And after an evening of conversation with an enigmatic Japanese fellow named Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), he decides to take the plunge. But he decides that to make the atmosphere of his club fit his dream, he must hire Sofia as his resident Female Presence: he’s only recently met her, but sensed immediately that she would be key to the place’s perfection. She agrees, and before long the titular club, named after her, has been born–and flourishes.
But of course Jackson cannot keep the world at bay, nor can Sofia escape the disdain heaped on her by her proud by penurious mother-in-law (Lynn Redgrave) and sister-in-law (Madeleine Potter), who try to prevent Sofia’s loving daughter (Madeleine Daly) from being infected by her mother’s loose ways, which they think hardly fitting to a person of her class. (The two other members of the tattered noble family, Aunt Sara and Uncle Peter–played by Vanessa Redgrave and John Wood–are less censorious but rather too over-the-bend to be of any aid.) While the two try to maintain a strictly “professional” relationship, their concern for each other grows, especially after Jackson meets the countess’ daughter, who clearly reminds him of his lost child. After much simmering and under-the-surface turmoil in the earlier reels, the plot abruptly heats up toward the close, as the Japanese invasion–involving Matsuda, of course–occurs just as the Belinsky family secures passage to Hong Kong. But the others (save her daughter, naturally) want to leave Sofia behind, and it’s up to Jackson, finally roused from his emotional slumber, and Sofia’s kindly Jewish neighbor Samuel (Allan Corduner) to intervene amidst the upheaval to stop the separation of mother and child.
One senses that Ishiguro is striving after something like a cerebral “Casablanca” crossed with the understated passion of “Remains,” but the mixture doesn’t gel. Most of “The White Countess” feels hopelessly “literary” and more than a little pretentious–one always has to be concerned when a character’s blindness is intended to be metaphorical as well as physical–and matters aren’t aided by Ivory’s direction, which brings a certain elegance to the action but very little in the way of energy. As is the norm in Merchant-Ivory period pieces, the production is lovely, with Andrew Sanders’ design, Yu Baiyang and Steve Simmonds’ art direction, John Bright’s costumes and Christopher Doyle’s cinematography all topnotch. Richard Robbins also contributes a score that’s relatively modest and unobtrusive, in line with the overall reticence of the film.
But the cast, though starry, never manages to break through the lassitude. Fiennes and Richardson are both technically accomplished, of course, but until the last act both are so restrained and controlled that they barely register as human beings. It’s even worse for the Redgraves, Potter and Woods, who are playing characters more sketched than fully formed. But Sanada captures Matsuda’s odd strength and Corduner Samuel’s goodness of heart, while Daly adds a welcome note of sprightliness to a proceeding that desperately needs one.
The title of “The White Countess” indicates both the film’s strengths and its weaknesses. It’s aristocratic, but in the effete, overly reserved fashion that so often characterizes the upper classes. And it’s certainly chaste, as the purity of whiteness suggests; but almost icy in an emotional sense. The picture is beautiful to look at but slow and static, and it will probably leave you cold.