The White Countess
(Sony Pictures Classics)
A little less than a year ago, Bombay-born film producer Ismail Merchant died in London. With his directing partner James Ivory and frequent screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Merchant Ivory productions were internationally renowned for their stories of love and conflict between people of different classes and cultures, from their first film together in 1963, The Householder, and continuing with titles such as A Room With A View, Howards End and more recently, the Kate Hudson/Naomi Watts comedy-drama Le Divorce. The White Countess will be their last, written by Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day), and starring Ralph Fiennes as a blind American diplomat in 1930s Shanghai who opens a nightclub and employs a down- on-her-luck, Russian countess, played by Natasha Richardson. Disappointingly, the film is a bit stodgy, with Fiennes offering little of the Bogart-esque embittered swagger the role requires. The impoverished, Russian aristocrat family—a couple of whom are essayed by Richardson’s mother and aunt, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave—never really manifest. Still, despite its languid pacing and low-key dramatics, the picture has a powerful romantic sensibility. It oozes that stately quality for which Merchant Ivory productions became known. In a word: class.