White Countess (2005): Merchant Ivory Last Production, Starring Sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, and Daughter Natasha Richardson

It’s with great regret that I have to report that The White Countess is a misfire. Unfortunately, it’s the last Merchant-Ivory collaboration (producer Ismail Merchant died during post-production) in what’s one of the longest, most fruitful teaming in film history.

James Ivory has specialized in costume dramas and literary adaptations of classics (“Room with a View,” “Howards End”), but epic-scale adventure like “White Countess” is out of his league. Hence, this curio item, a mixture of romance-adventure-melodrama, may go down in history as being the first work in which the two Redgrave sisters (Vanessa and Lynn) and Vanessa’s daughter Natasha appear together, rather than as cinematic achievement.

Kazuo Ishiguro, who scripted the 1993 Merchant-Ivory drama, “Remains of the Day,” a much better picture, gets credit for his original screenplay, which is very loosely based on Junichiro Tanizaki’s Japanese novel, “Diary of a Mad Old Man.” Unfortunately, the film still feels like a novel, perhaps because most of the interactions are not fully dramatizes.

In 1936, Shanghai was a crossroads for political intrigue, refugees escaping turmoil, military forces, international business, and underworld culture. Two people caught in this maelstrom forge a bond on the brink of the Japanese invasion: a beautiful Russian countess named Sofia (Natasha Richardson), reduced by circumstances to supporting her family as a bar girl and taxi dancer; and a blind former diplomat, Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), devastated by the loss of his family in political violence and disillusioned by the world’s inability to make peace.

The intriguing part of the story revolves around “The White Countess,” the elegant nightclub created by the diplomat to shut out the chaos and tragedy that surround him. The main problem is that the intimate relationship and the larger socio-political contexts operate separately, as if they were two different movies; the style in which they are directed and shot is also divergent. End result is diffuse, rambling film of few dramatically interesting moments.

The once-aristocratic Belinsky family’s fortunes are much reduced since the Bolshevik Revolution displaced Russia’s nobility. They occupy a slum flat in Shanghai, supported by Sofia, a beautiful young widow who sets out at night dressed in a threadbare evening gown to earn a sparse living as a taxi dancer and occasionally as a prostitute.

Most of the characters in the film are women. Sofia supports her young daughter, Katya (Madeleine Daly), her elderly Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave) and Uncle Peter (John Wood), and her spiteful mother-in-law and sister-in-law, Olga (Lynn Redgrave) and Greshenka (Madeleine Potter). Though Sofia is their only means of support, Olga and Greshenka ceaselessly lament the shame and degradation that Sofia brings upon them.

Despite plenty of family intrigues, that could easily occupy a TV mini-series, the movie is curiously dull. Ten-year-old Katya, who adores her mother, is caught in a tug of war between her mother’s love and her relatives’ meddling. Sofia views her lot with weary resignation, but manages to show small kindnesses to the people around her. Sofia is friendly with Samuel (Allan Corduner), the downstairs neighbor in the Shanghai tenement, a European Jew, who keeps a concerned eye out for little Katya and tries to help out Sofia whenever

On the other end of the social spectrum, Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a bored by his business, to the dismay of the other company directors. Though blind, he proudly walks unaided, shrugging off attempts to assist him. While sympathizing with the as-yet unnamed tragic circumstances that led to his blindness, they are disturbed by Jackson’s eccentricity and disreputable habits.

These habits include nightly tours of Shanghai’s many lowlife dives. Tom, a young American who’s the son of an old friend, reproaches Jackson for frequenting the seedy bars, but the latter brushes him off, assuring him that he’s fine. We are then introduced to another man who’s been watching Jackson, Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) a fellow connoisseur of nightlife who becomes a suitable companion. The two men share fascination with what they consider the right ingredients for the perfect nightlife ambience: comfortable, but with a frisson of violence; not too posh or too grimy; a volatile chemistry of people, music, bouncers, and women.

Matsuda accompanies Jackson on his prowls of Shanghai’s pleasure district, and they part at the taxi-dance hall where Sofia works. Increasingly cut off from the respectable world, Jackson gambles his life savings on the horses in hopes of raising the funds required to underwrite
his dream project, his perfect nightspot. After winning, Jackson asks Sofia to work for him as a hostess. He also recruits musicians, dancers, and vamps to spice up an atmosphere of glamour, sophistication, a vibrant international elegance. As a result, “The White Countess” becomes the in-place of Shanghai nightlife, with Sofia ensconced as the “real thing,” the White Countess herself.

The ensuing chapters are the most interesting in the film since they detail a peculiar relationship, marked by a decidedly polite distance. The duo decides that they will tell each other nothing of their private lives outside the bar. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, a personal interest develops based on mutual loss and sadness.

From then on the movie goes downhill until it reaches its predictable conclusion. In flashback we learn that ten years earlier, Jackson’s wife and their young son died when their house in China was burned in anti-Western riots, leaving him alone to care for his little daughter Christina. When Jackson meets Katya, Sofia worries that this intimacy is a breach of their impersonal relationship. Nonetheless, the three have reached a point of no return, with mother and daughter gradually penetrating Jackson’s emotional prison, and he in turn, emerging from his grief and willing to embrace a new, surrogate family.

Reunited, Sofia, Katya, and Jackson finally get aboard the boat for Macao, as the city of Shanghai explodes in shelling behind them. The White Countess goes up in flames, but the last image, of boats filled with refugees on a peaceful sea, seems to be a hopeful portent.

Fiennes is perfectly cast as the disillusioned hero who can’t escape his former fame, a kind of an update of the heroes Humphrey Bogart played in the 1940s. We learn that Jackson was instrumental in establishing the League of Nations, is a hero to Chinese nationalists, but remains disillusioned by the failure of diplomacy to establish peace.

However, lacking beauty, glamour or sophistication, Richardson is miscast, and she generates little heat or chemistry with Fiennes. The Redgrave sisters have little do, and both look strange, as if Ivory went out of his way to deglamorize their looks.

In ambition, “White Countess” wants to be a “Gone With the Wind” like epic romance, but, alas, the historical background is not integrated into the plot, and thus remains a mere. The film’s climax, with Shanghai under attack, takes place on August 14, 1937, known as “Bloody Saturday,” is well shot by Christopher Doyle.

Overall, though, the film’s style is incoherent. Ivory has said that he wanted “to have a lot of variety in the style of photography,” which was the reason for choosing Doyle, a brilliant cinematographer and veteran of both Chinese action cinema and Asian art films, such as Wong Kar-Wai’s best work. But here, lacking guidance, the work of the otherwise reliable Doyle is just decent but not great.

Historical Postcript

Most of China was nominally united as a republic led by Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang nationalists. The Communists led by Mao Tse-tung, however, challenged the nationalists in regional civil wars. Japan had occupied the rich northeastern province of Manchuria, renamed Manchukao since 1932 (a period depicted in Bertolucci’s 1987 Oscar-winner, “The Last Emperor”). The Soviets fought Japan over Mongolia, manipulating the struggles between Chinese communists and nationalists. Japan’s occupation of China continued through WWII and ended with Japan’s surrender to the Allies in 1945. The collapse of Japanese control plunged China into full-scale civil war, from which the Communists emerged triumphant in 1949. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces retreated to Taiwan, a partition of China that’s still a source of conflict today. The international business hub of Shanghai was absorbed into greater China and has only recently regained its place as one of the most vibrant cities of the Far East.