White Countess, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/21/05 00:30:53

"Another two hours of paint-drying, Merchant-Ivory-style"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

With the death earlier this year of producer Ismail Merchant, “The White Countess” will go down as his last official production with his longtime partner, director James Ivory–a collaboration that has produced a number of excellent works (“A Room With a View,” “Howard’s End” and “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries” are among their best) and an equal number of drags (including such all-time dogs as “Slaves of New York” and “Le Divorce”). Sadly, this effort is among their weaker efforts, a soporific melodrama that is such a chore to watch that it makes “The Hours” look like “Run Lola Run” by comparison.

Working from an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (whose book “The Remains of the Day” inspired another Merchant-Ivory production), the film, set in 1930's Shanghai, tells the thoroughly uninteresting story of the relationship between a former American diplomat (Ralph Fiennes), whose past has left him both literally and metaphorically blind to the changing world surrounding him, and a deposed Russian countess (Natasha Richardson), who has been reduced by circumstance to working as a dance-hall girl to support her daughter and her late husband’s hateful relatives (played by, among others, Richardson’s real-life mother and aunt, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave). Both try to ignore the world around them–Fiennes befriends a mysterious Japanese man even though it appears that he may be planning an invasion of Shangahi while Richardson allows her monstrous in-laws to mistreat her over the way she makes a living (while still accepting every cent) and then, when there is a chance to flee to Hong Kong, convince her that it would be better all around if they take her own daughter with them and strand Richardson in Shanghai–until events literally begin to blow up around them and they are forced to confront both themselves and the world around them.<

While most Merchant-Ivory films (save their wonderful E.M. Forster adaptations) tend to stagger along at a snail’s pace, this one is so poky that it never quite accelerates to such levels. The story is bereft of any dramatic, political or romantic tension. Oh sure, there is plenty of talk about such things but they are dealt with in such a polite and gloves-on manner that they come off as just another colorful detail that is momentarily glimpsed and then ignored. A bigger problem is that there is no sense of any authentic feeling for the time or place--although parts of the film were shot in Shanghai, they might as well have shot them on the same Hollywood backlot used for “Memoirs of a Geisha” for all the impact that they have. Most crucially, Fiennes and Richardson strike zero sparks together and since the entire film is supposed to center on their evolving relationship, these two wet matches are so ineffectual that even if the other elements had somehow succeeded, it wouldn’t have mattered a bit because the true heart of the film is barely beating.

It is a bummer because a lot of talented people put a lot of time and effort in “The White Countess” but the nicest thing you can say about the final product is that it is slightly better than “Havana.”

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