Wednesday 15 October 2008

The White Countess (2005)

Merchant Ivory is a film production company but it became almost a genre in itself. Founded to make English language period pieces set in colonial India for the international market, it became something a little more. As epitomised by such films as Howards End, The Remains of the Day and A Room with a View, they wandered further afield but mostly stayed within the same period: the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Many were based on award winning classic literature, by authors like E M Forster, Henry James or Kazuo Ishiguro, who adapted this film from his own novel.

Merchant Ivory films are often quintessentially English, which is somewhat bizarre given that all three of the key names are foreign. Most of their films were directed by James Ivory (an American), produced by Ismail Merchant (an Indian) and written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (a German Pole). Depending on how you count, this could easily be considered the last Merchant Ivory production, as Ismail Merchant died during production. This one has impeccable credentials: beyond Merchant, Ivory and Ishiguro, there's also the name I came for: cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Shooting in Shanghai and not hiring him would be lunacy. The cast are major names and constitute a first, given the unique combinations of real acting dynasties.

The White Countess of the title is a bar, the bar that lives inside the head of American diplomat Todd Jackson. He's an important man, it would seem, someone who was integral to the founding of the League of Nations and who is well respected by the various nationalities that populate the wildly multicultural city of 1936 Shanghai. However he is also blind and he's tired of the politics. He hides himself away in the seedier part of town where his colleagues won't go and plans his own place, which comes to life after a win on the horses. The last piece of the puzzle is the lady after whom he names the place.

She's Countess Sofia Belinskya, a member of the Russian nobility who has escaped the Bolshevik revolution to the slums of Shanghai. However here through necessity she has become a taxi dancer (and perhaps more) in a seedy club, similar to many of the lead characters in precodes, and she has a whole family to provide for: not just her daughter but elder relations too who do precisely nothing except look down on her. Jackson encounters her there and she helps him out of a jam that he can't even see. He can't see her either, though we see Natasha Richardson. What he sees in his mind is 'the allure, the tragedy, the weariness' that he wants for his bar, for which she is perfect.

The only thing left for his vision after that is political tension, which he slowly introduces with the assistance of Mr Matsuda who he knows only as a fellow visionary, someone that he once talked with at a bar, but whose discussions grow in importance as time goes by. He doesn't know that the Sino-Japanese War is coming and Mr Matsuda is someone very important back in Japan, someone whose presence generally foreshadows invasion. However their friendship and shared vision really epitomise what Jackson wants The White Countess to be.

Everything about this film should be awesome, but it isn't. It has a great historical sweep and plenty of little stories on the personal level. It's a Merchant Ivory production shooting on location in Shanghai with Christopher Doyle behind the lens. Ralph Fiennes is no minor name and neither is Natasha Richardson, whose relatives here are mostly played by her own relatives: her aunt, Lynn Redgrave and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave. Kazuo Ishiguro adapts his own novel.

Yet somehow it's lacking. Visually it looks great, and I can appreciate Doyle's use of faded colour to match Jackson's vision. The shots in the harbour are just gorgeous, vintage Doye. Fiennes does a great job of playing a blind man, though he's less successful as an American. Natasha Richardson is superb and so is Hiroyuki Sanada as Mr Matsuda. However there's very little life in the film, which just fails to ignite at more than a few points. Maybe it's just too polite, all the depth of feeling lost behind deliberately dispassionate faces. I've never read any of Ishiguro's books but I have read comments that suggests that he writes clever work about internal feelings. That would fit with what The White Countess seems to be about, but we don't see any of it. It's all hidden.

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