Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The White Countess - Movie Review

The White Countess 2005

On May 25th of this year, the international cinema lost one of the last great producers and filmmakers. Ismail Merchant, who together with director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala carved an indelible niche into the drab pabulum of mainstream moviemaking with their passionate, literate, and class act films. For over forty films, their inspired traveling stock company of cast and crew would work at mere scale, dedicate themselves to producing quality work – and if they didn’t hit the mark every single time, it was not for lack of trying. And along they way, they produced works of art. “The Bostonians”, “A Room with a View”, “Maurice”, “Howard’s End”, and “The Remains of the Day”.

The last film to be supervised by Ismail Merchant has arrived. It is called “The White Countess”, was directed by his longtime partner in crime, James Ivory and written by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (who provided the original source for their masterful “The Remains of the Day”). It features the acting brilliance of Ralph Fiennes, John Wood, Allan Corduner, Lee Pace and a trio of Redgrave ladies.

Lynn, Vanessa and her real life daughter, Natasha Richardson as the lead. This is the first feature film to co-star Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, and they are both wonderful, of course. John Wood and Allan Corduner are old pros and acquit themselves nicely in their bit roles. Newcomer Hiroyuki Sanada is fine as the starchy and mysterious Mr. Matsuda. Madeleine Potter, one of the vets of the Merchant / Ivory stock company is perfectly cast as the brittle, elder Katya Belinsky. Lee Pace, earned his way into our hearts with his brilliant tranny turn in “Soldier’s Girl”, and his contribution to one of our favorite TV shows, the clever and all too quickly cancelled, “Wonderfalls.”

The setting is Shanghai in the 1930’s. The international port that found itself home to the world’s charmers, vagabonds, refugees, gamblers and whores. They are all here. The story concerns a blind diplomat who is withering away in his daily existence, dreaming of opening his vision of the perfect little bar in this hubbub of cosmopolitan angst. Into his life arrives a taxi dancer, as played by Natasha Richardson, who in a previous life was a Russian Countess. We all know how badly things went for Russian Countess’ circa 1917, so let’s not ask what she and her tattered family are doing living in a hovel in Shanghai. It seems everyone in this film is biding their time until their eventual escape or salvation. The Russians are looking for safe travel to Hong Kong where their friends and family await them. The diplomat is seeking an escape from his haunting memories. The mysterious Mr. Matsuda, is seeking an escape from his shady dealings with the Chinese authorities. And after the first five minutes, we were seeking a cocktail and ashtray! (We hate watching period films, they are having so much fun drinking and smoking – bring that back to the movie theatres, we say!)

Natasha Richardson has had more luck on the stage than the screen. With “The White Countess”, she has the rare opportunity to shine. She is exquisite. Her delicate turn as the exiled Russian Countess is a joy to behold. She alternates her quite dignity with a brassy reassurance in moments of crisis. And Good Lord, does she looking stunning in her 1930s drag!! Ralph Fiennes does a fine turn as the blind diplomat, and his inner struggle with his demons is handled quite well. The senior Redgrave sisters should surprise nobody with their marvelous character turns. If you are unaware of their fabulous careers, well then, there is no hope for you. Go check it out. Eight Oscar nominations between the talented duo, and they still light up the screen.

If the meticulous production values and formidable cast were all that the film had to recommend it, it would be sufficient in our eyes. Fortunately, the coming together of the various principle characters in this now forgotten world works exceptionally well. Our main criticism of the piece must be assigned to screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro. While we adore his novels, go read them now please, we feel he should have taken a master class with Merchant / Ivory’s long term collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Now, that bitch knew how to structure a screenplay!

If the movie drags in the beginning, and takes its time in finding its legs – it is due to the very literary pacing by the novelist cum screenwriter. We certainly didn’t dislike this film, and with the solid turns by Natasha and Ralph coupled with the added bonus of watching the Redgraves strut their stuff, we can certainly recommend it. While “The White Countess” may not be the pinnacle of the Merchant / Ivory oeuvre, it is certainly not a stain on Ismail’s memory. Perhaps we are partially disappointed since we know they are capable of greatness. This is a good film. Not a great one. And sometimes, that is enough. Bless you all!

Directed by James Ivory
Written by Kazuo Ishiguro
Produced by Ismail Merchant

Ralph Fiennes as Todd Jackson
Natasha Richardson as Countess Sofia Belinsky
Vanessa Redgrave as Aunt Sara
Lynn Redgrave as Olga
Madeleine Cooper as Katya
John Wood as Prince Belinsky
Madeleine Potter as Katya Belinsky
Allan Corduner as Samuel
Hiroyuki Sanada as Mr. Matsuda
Lee Pace as Crane

Original Music by Richard Robbins
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle and Yiu-Fai Lai
Costume Design by John Bright
Film Editing by John David Allen
Production Design by Andrew Sanders