The name Merchant-Ivory has become synonymous with a certain kind of period piece ' well-spoken people in well-appointed rooms, but with a thick layer of dust on everything. That used to be enough, when the movies were based on such novels as A Room With a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day. But there are only so many novels like that, and for what turns out to be their last production (Ismail Merchant having died last May), the Merchant-Ivory duo have resorted to an original script by Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day. I wish I could say they've done it again. They haven't. Despite first-rate performances by Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson, The White Countess is second-rate, a not-so-fond farewell.
The setting's exotic enough ' Shanghai in the '30s, right before the Japanese army came to town, wrecking the party that had been going on for years. Fiennes is an American diplomat who, having lost his family, his eyesight and his faith in world government, has invested what remains of his will to live in a nightclub called the White Countess, named for the Russian aristocrat he's hired as hostess. Richardson's Sofia managed to stay one step ahead of the Russian Revolution, but there aren't a lot of rubles to go around, forcing her to seek employment as a taxi dancer and ' implied but never shown ' a prostitute. Fortunately, that's just what our disillusioned Yank is looking for. He wants his club to have "a balance between the erotic and the tragic."
Think Rick's CafÃ, only with a thick layer of dust. The White Countess can't help but remind us of Casablanca (or Cabaret), but everything's so attenuated, so inchoate. It's as if Ishiguro meant to come back later and flesh out the material, give it a shape, but never had the chance. And this makes for a rather odd movie. The elements are all there ' story, characters, setting ' but they just don't add up. Fiennes' Jackson is intriguing at first, a man whose world has fallen apart and who tries to build another one where he can adjust the levels of hope and despair. And although you can sense the effort that's gone into playing blind and pulling off an American accent, Fiennes has clearly connected with the role. It's us he ultimately fails to connect with.
Richardson, too, is compelling, with just the right blend of kindness and fatigue. And listening to her wrap that rich, husky voice ' she sounds more like her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, every day ' around a thick Russian accent is pure pleasure. But the role, as written, gives her nowhere to go. Sofia's a tragic heroine, something out of Tolstoy. And there are lines worthy of Tolstoy. ("All of us have to fall in love from time to time, to feed our families.") But it feels as if the filmmakers have adapted every other paragraph of Anna Karenina. You can see what they were reaching for: Sofia is both a noblewoman and a noble woman. No wonder the world-weary diplomat eventually falls for her. She's as pure and innocent ' and as doomed ' as the League of Nations.