What would the early '90s have been without the art house films of Merchant-Ivory Productions? Founded by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, the duo found modest popular success with stately and understated films such as Remains of the Day and Howard's End, amid the bluster and bombast of Hollywood juggernauts like Jurassic Park and Basic Instinct. Their films had meticulous period details, impeccable casting and highly literate scripts, transporting the viewer to another time and place more effectively than most fantastical summer blockbusters.
But they didn't always work. Sometimes the work was too reserved and came off as stuffy and dramatically inert (Mr. And Mrs. Bridge).
With the recent death of Ismail Merchant, The White Countess serves as the last word on a 40-year collaboration and reflects both the filmmakers' strengths and weaknesses.
The duo's trademark pedigree is on full display: a lavish period backdrop, unspoken emotions, social unrest and a tasteful literary adaptation by acclaimed writer Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day). The actors are equally top-notch, with Ralph Fiennes playing alongside a trinity of Redgrave women: Lynn, Vanessa and her daughter Natasha Richardson. Unfortunately, The White Countess unfolds so sedately it borders on catatonic.
Fiennes plays Todd Jackson, a blind diplomat living in 1930s Shanghai on the eve of the Japanese invasion. Haunted by a tragic past, he's abandoned politics and become a patron of smoky speakeasies, where he dreams of opening the perfect nightclub. He then meets sad, glamorous Countess Sofia (Richardson), an exiled Russian aristocrat struggling to provide for her royal in-laws (the Redgraves) and young daughter by earning money as an escort. The two forge a business relationship when Jackson becomes convinced that Sofia would be the perfect mascot for his swanky late-night oasis. The nightspot becomes a smashing success and the two develop a slow, simmering romance. Unfortunately, the real world comes knocking on Jackson's doors as the Japanese invade.
Fiennes brilliantly captures Jackson's wounded optimism and casual charm, and Richardson is radiant as a woman who knows her royalty has faded into desperation. The chemistry between them is appropriately restrained, but far too laconic. When the two are finally forced to confront their emotions, the film comes alive with possibility.
Both the Redgrave sisters shine in supporting roles, but Lynn stands out as a callous aristocrat who will do anything to re-establish her family's good name.
Christopher Doyle's cinematography is gorgeously lush, balancing the intimacy of the film's nightclub settings against the vibrant bustle and energy of cosmopolitan Shanghai. But despite the fascinating backdrop, excellent cast and subtle invocations of Casablanca, the film never really takes off. Ishiguro's script doesn't take any emotional risks.
There are many intriguing relationships, but the most promising is relegated to subplot status. While trolling through Shanghai's decadent nightlife, Jackson meets and bonds with a mysterious kindred spirit, Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada). The two share an appreciation for the city's uninhibited club culture. When Jackson has the opportunity to see his perfect nightclub come to fruition, Matsuda offers unexpected aid. The arrival of the Japanese army, however, unmasks his new friend as someone with more nefarious plans.
Had this storyline of political and personal upheaval been brought to the forefront, The White Countess might have become one of Merchant-Ivory's more memorable productions. As it stands, it's merely a decent addition to the duo's canon. If you're a true fan of their work, it's probably worth your time to catch it during its one-week run.
Showing for one week only at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.