The White Countess (PG)

Directed by James Ivory
Written by Kazuo Ishiguro (screenplay)
Screening at FACT from 14th-20th April 2006

Reviewed by Helen Grey

‘The White Countess’ was the final production brought to us by the hugely successful partnership of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. The film was completed before Merchant died last year aged sixty-eight. It tells the story of blind American ex-diplomat Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), and his relationship with the now penniless Russian Countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson) in 1930s Shanghai.

Jackson dreams of opening his own bar where he can escape the world outside, from which he feels increasingly detached. Sofia is desperately trying to raise money to feed her daughter and extended family through work as an escort and occasional prostitute. She has the tragedy and weariness that Jackson is looking for in his club and asks her to become the hostess and centrepiece of ‘The White Countess’. Looming on the fringes of the film is the constant threat of invasion by the Japanese to the east to the country.

The revival of period drama has been partly attributed to the partnership of Merchant-Ivory. The pair brought cinematic audiences such films as ‘The Householder’ in 1963, ‘A Room with a View’ in 1985 and ‘The Remains of the Day’ in 1993 amongst numerous others. I assume the appeal of the films comes from the costumes, relationships and memories of a bygone era. Unfortunately these elements are just not enough to give The White Countess enough steam to run successfully for its 135 minutes. In terms of plot, nothing much happens at all. That would be ok if the characters were charismatic enough to capture the audience’s imagination, but there’re not. It must be appreciated that this is 1930s China - not a place for free speech and all night raves - but the reservedness of the characters become very frustrating. There are seemingly endless shots of the inside of bars, which pan around to show people dancing. This becomes repetitive and tedious, while the political dimension of the impending Japanese attack seems thrown in. The main characters quickly reveal themselves, leaving little for the audience to get their teeth into.

If period dramas are your thing I would strongly recommend you give this film a miss and go and rent a copy of ‘Gone With the Wind’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’

Printer friendly page