The White Countess


"Hollowly decorative" and "dramatically inert" are phrases that best describe many of the films of James Ivory, and they certainly apply to The White Countess. In this, the last project he produced with his late, longtime partner Ismail Merchant, he takes a tired, cliché-ridden, nostalgic screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) and layers on the ennui.

The film is set in 1936 Shanghai and features two stars, each cast in a real drag of a role and sporting slipshod, unconvincing accents. Ralph Fiennes is Todd Jackson, a blind, American diplomat from the South who forms a relationship with Natasha Richardson, playing an aristocratic Russian refugee, Countess Sophia Belinsky, who supports her family by selling herself in a nightclub. Her disapproving family consists of her mother-in-law (Lynn Redgrave), Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave) and sister-in-law Grushenka (Madeleine Potter), who cluck disapprovingly over her profession while blandly pocketing the cash she brings home. All three of these thoroughly wasted, powerhouse actresses are given naught to do but be concerned about Sophia's influence over her daughter, Katya (Madeleine Daly), who is already taking too great an interest in mama's lipstick and flashy gowns.

As the Japanese army encroaches upon Shanghai, Todd decides to open his own nightclub, The White Countess, and feature Sophia as its star attraction. There are many dull confabs between him and his diplomatic associates, horrified by his decadent lifestyle, as well as the mysterious Matsuda, a Japanese businessman (Hiroyuki Sanada), who may not have his best interests in mind.

Nothing happens except repetitive scenes of Sophia's familial angst and Todd jawing away in various boites until the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937, when the film suddenly decides to be a sweeping historical epic with bombs going off everywhere and the desperate populace rushing to escape to Hong Kong. These scenes are filmed with no greater sense of dramatic urgency than the talky preceding sequences; Ivory actually uses speeded-up action here to impart excitement the way they used to in ancient Hollywood films.

You sit in the audience, waiting to be swept away by the glamorously polyglot zeitgeist of Shanghai in the 1930s, or Sophia's increasingly desperate plight as she is relentlessly shunned by both family and Todd (who harbors one of those cornball unspoken loves for her). But Ishiguro's writing is as emptily contrived and ultimately pallid as Ivory's direction. There was a film called Shanghai in 1935, which featured Charles Boyer as a Eurasian rickshaw runner having a forbidden romance with Loretta Young, playing an American heiress, that, for all its cheap sentiment and obviousness, nonetheless had all of the romance and immediacy which The White Countess thoroughly lacks.

In an insane bit of casting, Madeleine Daly, who is actually Madeleine Potter's real-life daughter, in the film looks so much like her aunt (Potter) rather than her mother (Richardson) that you keep waiting for some kind of biological revelation which never comes. This seems typical of Ivory, a veteran of over 30 films, who-apart from his E.M. Forster adaptations-for all of his years and experience, doesn't seem to have the slightest clue about true dramatic logic or pacing. You always feel that if as much care and effort went into other essential elements of his films besides costuming and décor, you'd have something to really respond to.

-David Noh