Audiences can expect one thing from the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory: a Merchant Ivory film isn't meant to be watched, like other movies; it's meant to be visited, like a museum. While the results are sometimes dazzling and rich, and at others times stuffy and inert, the Merchant Ivory approach is nonetheless consistent. Each of their scripts lies somewhere between screenplay and novel. The attention they pay to period detail is lavish. And a Merchant Ivory cast typically reads like a roster of the world's leading thespians. Their most recent effort, The White Countess, is no different.
In it, all the Merchant Ivory hallmarks are present. The stalwart cast is led by Ralph Fiennes and a trio of Redgraves: Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, and Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave's daughter. The setting -- Shanghai in the period leading up to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 -- is lush and meticulously rendered. And the script, loosely adapted from Junichiro Tanizaki's novel The Diary of a Mad Old Man, was penned by acclaimed writer Kazuo Ishiguro.
So, with all this talent and a proven formula, what could possibly go wrong? The same thing that goes wrong in all of the duo's more mediocre films -- the story never takes control of the film. The White Countess never casts caution aside and grabs hold of the audience until its final moments, when it's too late.
Of course, this over-deliberateness does have something to do with wounded characters who inhabit the film. The plot centers on Jackson (Fiennes), a former U.S. diplomat who long ago helped form the League of Nations. But much has happened to Jackson since then. Over the course of the film, we see periodic glimpses of the tragedies that have befallen him in the intervening years, tragedies which include the death of his wife and daughter and the loss of his eyesight. Sofia (Richardson), a Russian countess, has experienced a different type of loss. The Bolshevik Revolution has forced her and her aristocratic family into political exile. Once royalty, now her family's primary breadwinner, Sofia finds the only work she can, as a taxi dancer at a nightclub.
Jackson and Sofia meet one night when Sofia helps Jackson avoid a gang of thugs who are aiming to rob him. Jackson is immediately taken with her, but not simply for her act of kindness. He senses in Sofia a sort of perfection, and it's clear that she has reawakened his sense of possibility.
Their romance plays out, subtly, over the course of the next couple of years. Jackson hires Sofia away from the night club he met her at to be a hostess and taxi dancer at a club he's starting, the titular White Countess. Without ever stating it, Jackson has held onto the diplomat's dream of bringing the world together. The nightclub he creates is a meeting place for Chinese nationalists, Japanese militarists, American businessmen, and Chinese socialists -- a place where cultures clash and come together.
Fiennes and Richardson's chemistry is present, but purposefully understated. The affection that passes between them is expressed by a quick protective glance, a measured smile, a single softened word. Their restraint is appropriate to their characters, but it has the effect of making the film's conclusion -- when both characters finally allow themselves to live and act boldly, without fear of further pain and loss -- more satisfying than the rest of film.
During the making of The White Countess, Ismail Merchant died after a brief illness, marking the end of a collaboration that has spanned more than 40 years. And while this may not be the greatest of all Merchant Ivory films -- it would be tough to top Howards End and The Remains of the Day -- The White Countess is a worthy entry in the duo's oeuvre and a solid end to Ismail Merchant's productive and successful career.
DVD extras include commentary from Ivory and Richardson, a behind-the-scenes featurette, making-of vignette, and a tribute to Merchant.