THE WHITE COUNTESS directed by James Ivory, written by Kazuo Ishiguro, with Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Lynn Redgrave and Madeleine Potter. A Sony Classics/Mongrel Media release. 135 minutes. Opens Friday (January 13). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NN Rating: NN
With a few exceptions -- Howards End, A Room With A View, Jane Austen In Manhattan - the films of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant make me wish I were watching movies whose titles contain the words "Cheerleaders" and/or "Chainsaw."
The White Countess is the last Merchant-Ivory film, ending a 40-year run that epitomized the kind of tasteful literary filmmaking that appeals to people who don't really like any drama in their drama.
Set in Shanghai in the late 30s, this is the kind of movie in which the Chinese are extras in their own history behind a retinue of foreign actors in stylish clothes. Then one morning everyone wakes up and it's turned into Empire Of The Sun.
To see how limp a director Ivory is, compare the Japanese invasion of Shanghai here to the opening of Empire Of The Sun. Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker, while Ivory is mostly an embalmer.
The first person turned into a stiff here is Ralph Fiennes, who's stuck playing a blind American diplomat who wants to open his own perfect bar. It's hard to blame Fiennes for this performance, given that his character is working about three metaphors too many. Screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day) tends to torture his metaphors until they're ready to confess to blowing up the WTC.
The other thing embalmed is the work of cinematographer Chris Doyle. He's one of the great eccentrics, an Australian who works mostly with the best Asian filmmakers five films for Wong Kar-wai, including In The Mood For Love, Zhang Yimou's Hero, Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon. In this film he mostly makes sure things are the appropriate shade of brown.
Natasha Richardson's Countess Sofia Belinsky is the best thing here, and things would have gone much better if the movie had locked itself in Sophia's family's apartment. They're White Russian emigrés; Sophia's mother and aunt are played by Richardson's aunt and mother, Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave. In their scenes there's bitterness, regret and a wonderful sense of family as prison much more interesting than waiting for Fiennes to reveal his character's tragic secret.