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Friday, Oct. 27, 2006

Period epic shoots itself in the foot

As richly historical, densely sentimental and anachronistic as its header suggests, "The White Countess" is like a pot of Russian tea whose leaves have been left to steep for awhile; its taste often too singular and heavy for the modern palate to take. Unabashedly melodramatic and swooning on the beauty of its own tragedy, the film's centerpiece is a Russian countess toughing out her post-Bolshevik Revolution exile in 1930s Shanghai.

The White Countess Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson in "The White Countess" (c) MERCHANT IVORY PRODUCTIONS/WISEPOLICY AND TOHO-TOWA

Director: James Ivory
Running time: 136 minutes
Language: English
Opens Oct. 28, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Penned by Kazuo Ishiguro (Booker Prize-winning author of "The Remains of the Day"), "The White Countess" showcases his special sensitivity for a bygone age when it was gauche and shameful for aristocrats to work, and gentlemen wore Panama hats with linen suits and sat down to whiskey at the "club" every afternoon. And who better to depict such a world than James Ivory ("The Remains of the Day," "A Room with a View"), whose career for the past four decades has been about defining the particularities of its elegance/decadence.

Renowned for his longtime collaboration with producer Ismail Merchant (who died during postproduction of this film), Ivory has announced that "The White Countess" will be the last film to bear the famous Merchant/Ivory logo. Befitting the occasion, it's about the collapse of one era, the dawning of the next and the irretrievable sense of loss.

It's 1936 in Shanghai and European imperialism is on its last legs. The talk among the elite and those in power is of the possibility of a Japanese invasion. But for the exiled Russian aristocrat family of former Countess Sofia Belinskaya (Natasha Richardson), conversations are limited to money worries and pining for the glory days that went up in smoke with the Bolshevik Revolution.

Sofia is supporting a family that consists of her young daughter, Katia (Madeline Daly), and her aging in-laws, who hold her in contempt for working as a dancer at a cabaret club, conveniently ignoring the fact that without her hard-earned cash they would probably starve. Cramped inside two rooms in an alleyway apartment, the members of the household sleep together in one bed and relinquish its use to Sofia when she comes home in the morning. Hints that Sofia may be adding prostitution to her nightly workload are never made explicit. As she tells a dancer colleague: "When a woman has a family to feed, there's often no other way."

Blind diplomat Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) had once been the key negotiator in the political scene, but a series of personal tragedies have transformed him into an embittered, bar-crawling debauch. Having sworn off politics Jackson wants to open the ultimate bar in Shanghai, the plans for which he recounts to fellow customer Matsuda (an excellent Hiroyuki Sanada). Matsuda has vaguely sinister mannerisms -- other foreigners in Shanghai choose to keep their distance, but Jackson senses a kindred spirit.

When by a stroke of luck he's able to finance this dream bar (via a winning bet at the racetrack) it's Matsuda to whom he first tells his good news. He then hires Sofia as the proprietress, having met her at the cabaret club and having instinctively sensed her "eroticism, tinged with tragedy." In her honor, he names his new establishment "The White Countess."

The whole glossy package is touted as their love story, but much more compelling is the relationship between Jackson and Matsuda. Their interaction is pure Ishiguro: No other novelist has quite honed the art of restrained and discreet conversation. Jackson and Matsuda never speak of issues that may cause discomfort to each other and they certainly never stoop to let anything emotional creep into their words. It's a lesson in dialogue and friendship that these two see each other for no more than a few times over the course of a couple of years, yet the words they exchange carry a weight and significance that verboseness could never match.

Up to a point, Jackson is the same way with Sofia: He tells her they must never speak of their private lives and their relationship be strictly business. Sofia tries to be friendly if not a little intimate, but even she never permits herself to call him by his first name. It's always "Mr. Jackson" in a Russian accent that Richardson has perfected into a sexy, exotic purr.

With its stellar cast (including sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave playing Sofia's in-laws) and lush cinematography by Christopher Doyle, "The White Countess" has the ingredients for a classic period extravaganza, but greatness somehow eludes it, mainly during the last half-hour when Shanghai falls to the Japanese Army.

The panicked, mass exodus scenes would have been an opportunity for some real nitty-gritty drama. Alas, one step outside the confines of the bar and into the glare of daylight, the Sofia/Jackson affair loses much of its mystery. At the end, the pair just look hunted and hungry, unable to drum up any chemistry that had more or less eluded them throughout.

The one who walks away with real dignity is Matsuda; despite his shadiness (we never know for certain how thick he was with the Japanese military), he seems to be the only one aware that the world is about to change and far bigger things are at stake than personal survival or love. It's a rare instant when a Japanese manages not to look evil in prewar China.

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