Grit and Polish

Washington City Paper | January 20, 2006
Politics shackle the characters in The White Countess. The movie, which will be forever famous as the final Merchant Ivory collaboration, opens in 1936 Shanghai, where a family of Russian royals has settled after escaping the Bolsheviks. The extended clan now lives in poverty, supported only by Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), who nightly puts on rouge and lipstick to dance with the lonely hearts at a nightclub and turn the occasional trick. Her relatives, who apparently contribute nothing but criticism to the household, do not approve, especially because of the effect Sofia might have on her young daughter, Katya (Madeleine Daly).

They shouldn’t worry: The only character here who really falls under the sway of the aristocratic taxi dancer is Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a former American diplomat and current barfly recently blinded by a terrorist attack. He’s been dreaming of opening the perfect nightclub: classy, politically diverse, filled with bouncers who keep the peace merely by projecting the possibility of violence and women who exhibit “a balance between the erotic and the tragic.” He stumbles into Sofia’s erotic/tragic sphere; she helps him avoid some potential muggers lurking outside the definitely imperfect nightclub she works in; and, soon enough, one handsome, guarded expat is a lot closer to realizing his vision. That last word, by the way, is used frequently to describe Jackson’s project—a little joke made at the expense of the character, yes, but also one of the film’s many Serious Metaphors.

The White Countess, also the name of Jackson’s utopian establishment, is a characteristically stately if sometimes sluggish finale to producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory’s 44-year partnership. The gloomy monochrome of the Belinsky home and its wan inhabitants—who also make the film notable by including Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as Sofia’s aunt and Richardson’s real aunt, Lynn Redgrave, as Sofia’s mother-in-law—is meant to contrast with the vitality of Jackson’s nightclub. Though here, where a significant portion of the movie takes place, vitality is represented by a house full of clientele watching performances by ballerinas and people dressed as cats—and despite the plastered smiles, no one looks as if he’s having much fun.

And for good reason: Jackson, though pleased to have gotten the joint running, senses there’s something missing. Better booze? A livelier band? Nope: “political tension,” in his words. Although despondent over his failed peace efforts while with the League of Nations, Jackson still has a shred of hope in him. He theorizes that if members of opposite factions socialized, they’d begin to see their commonality instead of just their differences. And Jackson isn’t just wishing this for the good of all mankind—he knows that if Shanghai is invaded by the Japanese, Sofia will probably seek refuge elsewhere.

The screenplay, penned by Remains of the Day scribe Kazuo Ishiguro and loosely adapted from a Japanese novel, shares that film’s theme of isolation and how it might be overcome—though it tends to express it less gracefully. Jackson and Sofia’s agreement to have a strictly professional relationship, despite their obvious attraction, is referenced pretty much every time they begin talking about their personal lives—which is often. When he finally accepts her offer to feel her face, he responds, “Strange to think that all this time, I never knew how beautiful you were!” And once Sofia asks Jackson if the club’s heavy doors are meant “to keep out the rest of the world”—the one in which Jackson met tragedy and realized that peace between China and Japan was unlikely—well, that’s not the last time the analogy gets trotted out.

Consistently strong, however, are the performances. Fiennes’ Jackson is similar to his character in The Constant Gardener: stubborn, wounded, and believably risk-taking. (The twist is that he’s also physically wobbly and randomly loud, characteristics that seem to have as much to do with his affinity for the sauce as his disability or state of mind.) Richardson’s Sofia is understated—quiet but beguiling in her seductions and incomprehensibly submissive around her family, especially her sister-in-law Greshenka (a wicked Madeleine Potter).

The White Countess becomes more worthy of its excellent performances during its final chapter, in which all hell breaks loose. Jackson discovers that his partner in carousing, the Japanese Mr. Matsuda (a perfectly menacing Hiroyuki Sanada), may not exactly be his ally. And Japan’s imminent takeover of Shanghai sparks a mass exodus—just as Jackson and Sofia agree to get close to each other. When the troops finally roll in, it’s time for all involved—Sofia, her family, Jackson, his heretofore loyal driver—to Do What Must Be Done, and their decisions are sometimes wrenching. Everyone is out on the streets, frantically trying to execute their choices and changes of mind among the chaos, which is rendered with almost palpable urgency by cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Removed from Merchant Ivory’s upholstered interiors, the not-quite-romance seems nearly as grand as the world’s conflicts. Finally, The White Countess feels real and compelling—a fit conclusion to both the film and an acclaimed partnership.

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