The White Countess

"Very Good"

The White Countess Review


Audiences can expect one thing from the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory: a Merchant Ivory film isn't meant to be watched, like other movies; it's meant to be visited, like a museum. While the results are sometimes dazzling and rich, and at others times stuffy and inert, the Merchant Ivory approach is nonetheless consistent. Each of their scripts lies somewhere between screenplay and novel. The attention they pay to period detail is lavish. And a Merchant Ivory cast typically reads like a roster of the world's leading thespians. Their most recent effort, The White Countess, is no different.

In it, all the Merchant Ivory hallmarks are present. The stalwart cast is led by Ralph Fiennes and a trio of Redgraves: Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, and Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave's daughter. The setting -- Shanghai in the period leading up to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 -- is lush and meticulously rendered. And the script, loosely adapted from Junichiro Tanizaki's novel The Diary of a Mad Old Man, was penned by acclaimed writer Kazuo Ishiguro.

So, with all this talent and a proven formula, what could possibly go wrong? The same thing that goes wrong in all of the duo's more mediocre films -- the story never takes control of the film. The White Countess never casts caution aside and grabs hold of the audience until its final moments, when it's too late.

Of course, this over-deliberateness does have something to do with wounded characters who inhabit the film. The plot centers on Jackson (Fiennes), a former U.S. diplomat who long ago helped form the League of Nations. But much has happened to Jackson since then. Over the course of the film, we see periodic glimpses of the tragedies that have befallen him in the intervening years, tragedies which include the death of his wife and daughter and the loss of his eyesight. Sofia (Richardson), a Russian countess, has experienced a different type of loss. The Bolshevik Revolution has forced her and her aristocratic family into political exile. Once royalty, now her family's primary breadwinner, Sofia finds the only work she can, as a taxi dancer at a nightclub.

Jackson and Sofia meet one night when Sofia helps Jackson avoid a gang of thugs who are aiming to rob him. Jackson is immediately taken with her, but not simply for her act of kindness. He senses in Sofia a sort of perfection, and it's clear that she has reawakened his sense of possibility.

Their romance plays out, subtly, over the course of the next couple of years. Jackson hires Sofia away from the night club he met her at to be a hostess and taxi dancer at a club he's starting, the titular White Countess. Without ever stating it, Jackson has held onto the diplomat's dream of bringing the world together. The nightclub he creates is a meeting place for Chinese nationalists, Japanese militarists, American businessmen, and Chinese socialists -- a place where cultures clash and come together.

Fiennes and Richardson's chemistry is present, but purposefully understated. The affection that passes between them is expressed by a quick protective glance, a measured smile, a single softened word. Their restraint is appropriate to their characters, but it has the effect of making the film's conclusion -- when both characters finally allow themselves to live and act boldly, without fear of further pain and loss -- more satisfying than the rest of film.

During the making of The White Countess, Ismail Merchant died after a brief illness, marking the end of a collaboration that has spanned more than 40 years. And while this may not be the greatest of all Merchant Ivory films -- it would be tough to top Howards End and The Remains of the Day -- The White Countess is a worthy entry in the duo's oeuvre and a solid end to Ismail Merchant's productive and successful career.

DVD extras include commentary from Ivory and Richardson, a behind-the-scenes featurette, making-of vignette, and a tribute to Merchant.



The White Countess

Facts and Figures

Run time: 135 mins

In Theaters: Friday 31st March 2006

Box Office USA: $1.6M

Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 50%
Fresh: 44 Rotten: 44

IMDB: 6.7 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer:

Starring: as Todd Jackson, as Countess Sofia Belinskya, as Matsuda, as Olga Belinskya, as Princess Vera Belinskya, as Grushenka, Madeleine Daly as Katya, as Samuel Feinstein, as Prince Peter Belinskya, as Crane

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

The Party Movie Review

The Party Movie Review

Comedies don't get much darker than this pitch-black British movie, written and directed by Sally...

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) Movie Review

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) Movie Review

Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha) is on his way to becoming the new Woody Allen, which...

6 Below Movie Review

6 Below Movie Review

Based on an astonishing true survival story, this film is subtitled "Miracle on the Mountain",...

Mother Movie Review

Mother Movie Review

Darren Aronofsky doesn't make fluffy movies, and has only had one genuine misfire (2014's Noah)....

Blade Runner 2049 Movie Review

Blade Runner 2049 Movie Review

It's been 35 years since Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi classic, which was set in 2019....

On the Road Movie Review

On the Road Movie Review

Wolf Alice fans are likely to be rather disappointed by this hybrid documentary-drama about the...

Borg/McEnroe Movie Review

Borg/McEnroe Movie Review

Skilfully made by Swedish filmmaker Janus Metz (the award-winning Armadillo), this film is essentially a...

Advertisement
The Glass Castle Movie Review

The Glass Castle Movie Review

There are quite a few terrific moments in this true story, based on the memoir...

Home Again Movie Review

Home Again Movie Review

Reese Witherspoon is so likeable that she can carry even the most hackneyed of romantic...

Brimstone Movie Review

Brimstone Movie Review

An unnerving Western with a sharp female perspective, this film is a series of gruesome...

Kingsman: The Golden Circle Movie Review

Kingsman: The Golden Circle Movie Review

Two years ago, Kingsman: The Secret Service seemed to come out of nowhere, ruffling feathers...

Goodbye Christopher Robin Movie Review

Goodbye Christopher Robin Movie Review

This biopic about Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne may look like the usual lushly...

Wind River Movie Review

Wind River Movie Review

After writing the superb Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan moves back into...

The Vault Movie Review

The Vault Movie Review

Filmmakers Dan Bush and Conal Byrne attempt a mash-up of a frantic heist movie with...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.