The threads come together ever so slowly in “The White Countess,” a ruminative drama about a Russian ex-royal and a former American ambassador adrift in pre-WWII China. This final production from the team of James Ivory and the late Ismail Merchant is itself adrift in more ways than one, with a literate but meandering script by “The Remains of the Day” novelist Kazuo Ishiguro that withholds emotional payoffs to an almost perverse degree. Name cast and typically tasteful presentation should spark biz among sophisticated older viewers, though likely a fraction of what the Merchant Ivory pedigree used to command theatrically.
Opening in Shanghai in 1936, pic follows the struggle of former Russian countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson, looking and sounding credibly Slavic), a widow who now works as a nightclub dancer and prostitute. Though she receives affection from her daughter Katya (a spirited Madeleine Daly) and aging aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave), she’s despised for her work by her sullen mother-in-law Olga (Lynn Redgrave) and sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter), never mind that the entire family is living on her income.
Enter Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes, looking and sounding credibly American), a former diplomat thoroughly jaded with international politics who can barely feign interest in his career as a businessman. A night on the town brings Jackson into contact with Sofia, and upon learning she was once an aristocrat, he finds himself instantly moved by her plight.
Jackson also happens to be blind — an attribute that Fiennes scrupulously underplays, as befits a man determined to maintain a droll front, regardless of his demons.
A well-placed bet at the racetrack provides Jackson the means to open his own club, the White Countess, where he invites Sofia to be his hostess, or “centerpiece.” So begins a highly chaste and almost reluctant courtship, as Jackson, though clearly beguiled by this beautiful woman and the lost elegance she represents, maintains a firm emotional distance.
While all this unspools at an involving yet convincingly gradual pace, Ishiguro’s ambitious screenplay stalls in its attempts to blend the intimate and the historical on the same canvas. Inert middle section is easily the weakest, as pic fast-forwards to 1937, ushering in a spate of political developments — the onset of the Japanese invasion and rising discord between the communists and the Kuomintang — while effectively skipping over a whole year in the development of the Jackson-Sofia relationship.
We’re left to conclude, somewhat lamely, that not much happens in a year. Not until after Jackson meets Katya by accident — prompting a series of flashbacks that reveal he once had a daughter of his own — does he allows his feelings toward Sofia to stir. Meanwhile, his casual friendship with a mysterious Japanese businessman named Matsuda (a creepily ambiguous Hiroyuki Sanada) brings about a change in the White Countess’ clientele, one that echoes the growing political tensions in the region.
Pic climaxes with a whirlwind of incident, as the Japanese begin their march on Shanghai, and Olga and Greshenka conspire to flee for Hong Kong, taking Katya with them. Gripping on a narrative and emotional level, this captivating final half-hour deftly reveals the full, heroic shape of both Sofia’s and Jackson’s characters while suggesting what a knockout the pic could have been had the dramatic elements been more evenly distributed.
While his sedate direction doesn’t generate much heat from the period setting, Ivory retains his sure touch with actors, eliciting a luminous turn from Richardson, whose Sofia never quite shakes off her regal bearing even in poverty. Fiennes, coming off a career-rejuvenating year with “The Constant Gardener” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” expertly limns the layers of stubbornness, regret and self-delusion that have paralyzed Jackson well beyond his visual impairment.
Supporting cast is equally strong, with Potter bringing twinkles of nuance to her portrayal of the jealous Greshenka, Allan Corduner registering strongly as Sofia’s kind Jewish neighbor, and the sisters Redgrave doing the most with their limited roles.
Ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle deploys a variety of film speeds and framing techniques, at times shifting to handheld camerawork as the mood dictates, though overall his lensing is less distinctive and more muted than his work with Wong Kar-wai. Ably capturing the flavor of the period are Andrew Sanders’ production design, John Bright’s costumes, Richard Robbins’ wind-heavy score and countless blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em Chinese extras.