93 of 96 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 2006
Sometimes there's just something hidden beneath the surface of a film that makes it glorious. The elements poured into a film sometimes gel in just the right manner that it tugs ever so feebly at your heartstrings. Films like these include 'Howards End' and 'The Remains of the Day'. And now I would like to happily add 'The White Countess' to that list.
As usual in Merchant Ivory productions, the casting is meticulously thought out. This film is no exception. The Redgrave clan, led by the quitely luminous Natasha Richardson, and Ralph Fiennes turn in such spectacular performances that capture the audience so well that you don't even mind the sluggish pace of the narrative. In fact, you can't think of anything better to do than sit through the slow-moving 2-hour-plus film and watch these actors deliver their lines and watch them play beautifully off each other.
Richardson (who, incidentally, should really make more films) gives a soft and nuanced performance as the totally believeable exiled Russian countess. The cinematographer takes excellent advantage of her elegant beauty. Fiennes is not quite as believeable as a fallen American ex-diplomat, but hey, it's Ralph Fiennes, and we always enjoy watching him on the screen. The romance between the bar owner and his countess is brilliantly understated. What I adore most about Merchant Ivory love stories is that the characters are allowed to quietly simmer. The attraction between Jackson and Sofia is evident from the moment they appear on screen together, but the audience is always left wanting more. A brief outburst of passion is quickly dampened and (while other blockbusters would have the couple in bed half-naked) the characters go back to their outwardly-platonic relationship. Richardson and Fiennes have excellent chemistry and we are almost left frustrated by the lack of open intimacy between them. But then we remember the personal losses sustained by both parties, and we forgive them.
The set direction, as usual, is visually sumptious. No detail is left uncovered and no measure too great. Perfectionists in every department, I tell you. A wonderful job recreating the sets, and quite a feat, considering everything was shot on location, though most authentic locales couldn't be used due to modern structures around it. The costumes are beautiful, with every character in character. The accents affected by the mostly British cast is not overdone and doesn't get in the way. The cinematography is to die for. Brilliant, brilliant shots across the board.
In short, a beautiful film and through its flaws, a perfect mixture of two tragic lives.
52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2006
THE WHITE COUNTESS by James Ivory and Ismael Merchant
I don't know why I felt the film was not a story but a situation. Maybe because of its slow pace. The spectator has the time to enjoy the splendid reconstitution of Shanghai of the 30's. Ivory's talent to generate a `very special atmosphere' makes me green with envy.
No visible sex, or violence, little action and yet the suspense builds to a crescendo driving you step by step towards a dreaded end. ("Oh my God, if it ends badly I die"). How is the gorgeous, blind, British diplomat going to avoid all the traps in front of him? (Caught in the mob running away from the Japanese army!) Argh! The scene where he stands alone in front of them! I was half way down my seat. How will the beautiful Russian countess react when her own family betrays her? I could not believe the ending! I had to climb back on my seat!! A rare stylish romantic film like they don't do anymore!
56 of 63 people found the following review helpful
"The White Countess" was the final production of the creative team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, who died in May 2005. The director-producer duo is probably known best for its elegant and emotionally sharp period films, a canon to which "The White Countess" aspires. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro, "The White Countess" takes place in Shanghai, China, a city of extraordinary variety, refuge and playground for the world's exiles and expatriates, on the brink of Japanese invasion in 1936. White Russian Countess Sophia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson) works as a taxi dancer to support her young daughter and deceased husband's family, who live in poverty in Shanghai, dreaming of the elegant lives they lost to the Revolution. Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) was a distinguished American diplomat before he lost his eyesight and family to violent accidents. Having acquired a certain recklessness, he wants to open a night club, where he will engineer the staff, entertainment and patrons to create a melodious and exciting blend of elements superior to any other club in Shanghai. Countess Sofia has the perfect blend of elegance and tragedy to be Jackson's "centerpiece". And she is only too happy to leave behind the desperation of the dance hall to become the hostess of The White Countess. So an uneasy relationship develops between these 2 people whose lives are dominated by loss.
"The White Countess" isn't a bad film, but it doesn't have much for the audience to grab hold of. The relationship between Todd Jackson and Countess Sofia is so distant that it doesn't engage us. We get a peek at the lives of exiled Russian nobility in Shanghai, but not enough information to learn much about that population. The re-creation of 1930s Shanghai is interesting. The ambience is conspicuous. But the relationships are unrealistic. The behavior of a Japanese imperialist named Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) strains credibility beyond the breaking point. These characters are interesting, but they don't ring true. So the necessary empathy is not forthcoming. Natasha Richardson does have an enchanting presence in this role, however. The cast is certainly talented. And it's a family affair: Natasha Richardson is accompanied by her mother Vanessa Redgrave as Sofia's Aunt Vera and aunt Lynn Redgrave as Sofia's stern, ungrateful mother-in-law Olga. Sister-in-law Greshenka and daughter Katya are played by mother and daughter Madeleine Potter and Madeleine Daly. I hope to see a film someday that makes better use of the fascinating pre-war jumble of cultures in Shanghai. Natasha Richardson is reason to see "The White Countess". Like the Countess, she conveys the right combination of mystery, tragedy, and sensuality to keep our attention.
The DVD (Sony Pictures 2006): Bonus features include 3 featurettes and an audio commentary. "Behind the Scenes of The White Countess" (11 min) features interviews with director James Ivory and the cast in which they speak primarily about the film's characters. In "Making of The White Countess" (13 min), James Ivory, production designer Andrew Sanders, costume designer John Bright, choreographer Karole Armitage, and cinematographer Chris Doyle, among others, talk about recreating 1930s Shanghai in modern Shanghai. "A Tribute to Ismail Merchant" (13 min) is a bio of Merchant's film career and his maverick personality through archival interviews with Merchant, friends and colleagues. There is a good audio commentary by director James Ivory and actress Natasha Richardson that touches on many aspects of making the film: sets, photography, hair and make-up, casting in China, actors, etc. Richardson keeps the commentary moving along at a nice pace, prodding Ivory on a variety of subjects and discussing her own performance. Subtitles for the film are available in English and French.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2006
I rushed to see this movie in Cambridge, when it first came around. Merchant-Ivory, the entire Redgrave clan, and Ralph Fiennes all come together to make this movie work. The screenplay is hardly the best work by the talented Kazuo Ishiguro; however, the actors are incredible. Natasha Richardson turns in a performance worthy of La Streep. Lynn Redgrave's character is so glacial in her lack of humanity that she could sink a dozen Titanics with a glance. Ralph Fiennes is equal parts Bogart and Belisarius. It was fascinating to watch his character evolve, and rediscover a place in the sun. Then there is the amazing Vanessa. Her performance is understated, dignified, and utterly human. I couldn't help thinking that if Marie Antoinette had had few of Vanessa Redgrave's talents; she might have been spared the guillotine. The satellite characters - particularly the refugee Jewish family are wonderful. In fact, without them the film would not have worked. As I said, this is a flawed movie, but it's still better than some of this year's Oscar nominees. If you want to watch a group of people emerge from old world, 19th century cocoons and begin the process of rekindling hope - then I say give "The White Countess" a chance.
51 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2005
Based on the novel and written for the screen by the estimable Kazuo Ishiguro, "The White Countess" should be a lot better than it turns out to be. Perhaps because a novelist feels so close to his characters and therefore has a deep connection to his story, Ishiguro and by extension director James Ivory seem to be unable to judiciously edit where necessary
On the other hand when you have the graceful, beautiful Natasha Richardson as a Russian Countess down on her luck in late 1930's Shanghai making ends meet and supporting her horrible family (literally and figuratively as her aunt Lynn and mother play her aunt and mother here) by selling dances for a few coins...how can you go wrong?
Richardson saves this film from being a total disaster with her emotional, sad, seen-it-all and then seen-it-all again portrayal of a woman who had to give up everything: money, clothes, position, a country in order to save her life, the life of her daughter and the lives of her aunt and mother.
Except for the elegant performance of Richardson, "The White Countess" is pretty much a mess: even Ralph Fiennes, usually so good in this type of role; here as a former diplomat blinded by a freak accident that also killed his wife and daughter, is unable to make a connection to his over-written character and consequently with us also.
"The White Countess" is another story of a film with an exalted pedigree that fails to ignite into anything resembling a great film. As it is, it's a good film with a great central performance and I guess for this we should be grateful?
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2006
My husband and I both loved this beautiful film with its many provocative layers brought to life by the fine actors and gifted technical artists of the Merchant-Ivory team. The screenplay was just wonderful, the photography breathtaking. All combined to create an intriguing, mysterious atmosphere wherein the subtle, emotionally powerful plot unfolds.
The movie was immediatly engaging in its convincing portrayal of survival in the face of calamity and the sudden reversals of fate. Many characters were portrayed with great depth, enhancing the richness of the plot. Ralf Fiennes was a perfect choice as the damaged, world-weary former diplomat, in flight from his former ideals and his faith in the possibility of an ordered and humane world. His ability to project sensitivity and emotional pain worked beautifully in this movie. Natasha Richardson was totally convincing in her role of an aristocrat, in much diminished estate, trying bravely and with as much dignity as she can muster to do whatever is necessary to survive from day to day. Minor characters such as the opaque Japanese official and the kind, jewish tailor were given fine, nuanced portrayals. The film had much to offer emotionally, as it explored the nature of love within the several relationships developed in the story; and there was a satisfying catharsis at the end as lonely survivors found care and tenderness in each other. The suggestion throughout -- that willy-nilly you must engage life, wherever it takes you -- that attempts to hide in a perfect, fantasied world, will not ultimately protect you from that engagement -- was a lovely sub-text to the salient action. I think I'll add this one to my collection of film jewels!
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2006
The White Countess states, "I grew up with people who believed in big heavy doors, just like you. But those doors weren't so strong in the end." This movie is set in China, before the rise of communism, before Japan ravaged the coastal areas in WW II. China had a strong wall for centuries, but it did not help their individual citizens prosper until they shifted their focus from isolationism & nationalism to opening up to individually driven commerce and accountability. This movie illustrates that fences & political powers rise and fall. Are we made stronger by the strength of our boundaries? Or are we made stronger by our ability to synergistically work with all the people around us? We never know what people will surround us, but if we can learn to understand our commonality, there is hope for each individual to prosper.
This is a movie about blind ambition, about a dreamer who envisions a place where people of different political, racial, and economic sectors commingle together. Even if it doesn't exist in the "practical" world, Mr. Jackson creates a bar NOT where every knows your name, but where adversaries agree not to kill each other for the evening.
The movie's theme of putting up strong boundaries to keep out the world reminded me of a TV excerpt I recently saw of a conservative Rep. supporting a bigger wall on the Mexican border. "Good fences make good neighbors," he said. A bigger wall? Is that going to improve the regional problems for the people on both sides of the border? I remember when we were so proud as a nation for thinking we helped bring down the wall between East and West Germany. Yet conservatives are now framing more exclusionary US borders as a good thing.
Vanessa Redgrave plays a woman who has been trampled on by societal pressures. Ms. Redgrave has regularly made the artistic choice to play women torn up by societal rules. Examples also include her roles in 'Howard's End' & 'If These Walls Could Talk'. In those two films, her family members mistreat her because they judge her choices to be astray and inappropriate. In 'Howard's End', she places the love of a friend over traditional bequests. In 'If These Walls Could Talk', her relatives decimate her dearly held private possessions and major assets, because they judge her long time love for another woman as illegitimate. In all 3 films, Ms. Redgrave allows her "duty" & "loyalty" to the status quo to silence her objections and belittle her aspirations. In this film and in 'Howard's End', her characters appear bludgeoned & emotionally shut down from years of internal & familial conflicts.
Kazuo Ishiguro's stories don't always have characters willing to change their long ingrained patterns. So I was surprised by the dramatic changes of some of the characters in the end. But when the world is running down, sometimes you make the best of what is still around. And when your family pressures you to cut off or let go the people you love, sometimes choosing unbridled love is a less insane and healthier choice than other alternatives.
In a non-Shakespearean twist, it takes the scorned and mistreated Jew to encourage Countess Sofia Belinskya to not abandon her child (against her family's "for the best" wishes). It takes the servant-chauffeur & the clever Japanese underworld boss to persuade Mr. Jackson to concede what is falling apart around him and to pursue the person he loves. The movie suggests that sometimes good influences come from arguably imperfect, wrong, and inappropriate sources. Sometimes you dance with a blind man, even if it disturbs the other guests.
Please comment, express feedback, or suggest related works.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2007
`The White Countess' is based on the original script (not book) of Kazuo Ishiguro, following the fates of two lost souls in Shanghai, 1936: Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) blind former diplomat and Sofia (Natasha Richardson) exiled Russian Countess. The film's historical background about the time of Japanese invasion gives the story a strong backdrop against which these two leads can ignite the sparks of romance between them ... or it should have done.
Anyone who has seen `Casablanca' would understand what I mean. You don't see the sizzling romance of Bogart and Bergman in this James Ivory film, which is emotionally detached despite the fact that the story itself is very melodramatic. You have fine acting from the actors including Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave and Hiroyuki Sanada, and the moody cinematography by Christopher Doyle and the production designs are perfect. The climax scenes even manage to express the chaos and confusion of the war (remember, it's a Merchant/Ivory film!), but I for one didn't feel no urgent feeling in some characters who should have been more serious about their lives.
[WORDY SCRIPT] Probably the weakest point is Ishiguro's script, which does not explain some important details of the characters despite its annoying wordiness. For example, Jackson owns a nightclub (like Rick) and he asks Sofia to be the `centerpiece' of the place. He says he needs `political tension' in his place, and invites several people from opposing political parties following the advice from mysterious Japanese Mr. Matsuda (Sanada). He then refers to his club as `canvas.' These images might work in novels, but not in films, where the viewers are more attracted to the real `centerpiece' of the film, meaning Jackson and Sofia.
Casting of the Russian family is interesting. Natasha Richardson who plays Sofia is, as you know, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave who plays Princess Vera Belinskya, and of course niece to Lynn Redgrave as Olga. Katya is played by newcomer Madeleine Daly who is really daughter of Madeleine Potter as Grushenka. Despite the fake Russian accent that is sometimes grating, the cast and their superb acting lend an air of reality to the portraits of exiled Russians, which is more convincing and intriguing than the main story itself.
Perhaps I'm too unkind, but I feel there is a greater film buried deep inside `The White Countess.' It could have been much longer as epic, or much romantic as melodrama, but the film is neither, hovering somewhere in between.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2006
Most everyone who knows Merchant and Ivory expects them to fit into the "Merchant and Ivory" category fans have created for them, when all along they have resisted fitting into Hollywood's pop machine, and occasionally even escape what fans have constructed. I'm pleased both to say and to realize that Merchant and Ivory, foremost, produce things from their hearts. This formula can sometimes be very unpredictable. Perfect case in point is SLAVES OF NEW YORK. I saw this film years ago and loved it. At the time, I didn't know that Merchant and Ivory were involved. Nevertheless, in retrospect, I fully appreciate how the film simply was something in their hearts, and they wanted to chronicle modern New York City, which was an odd juxtaposition of uptown and downtown.
We must try to understand why THE WHITE COUNTESS is slow moving and seems to never get anywhere in plot, dialogue, or action. To me, Merchant and Ivory presented the issues of world-class political intrigue, disillusionment, survival, and petty prejudices all combined into a reality pill. Thus, what better foundation to highlight the emotional power of witnessing the collapse of one's world again and again combined with parasitic hatred such as that of the in-laws (Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave) perpetrated against the widowed daughter-in-law, Countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson). Merchant and Ivory have been very successful just focusing on one or two good ideas per film. I think they have confused many with the art direction. Viewers have to look a little past the sumptuous or provocative sets to figure out what Merchant and Ivory are really trying to say.
I thoroughly enjoyed THE WHITE COUNTESS because it reminds me of how much I hate war; prejudice against Jews, blacks, or gays; and really, really, really hate pretentious "holier-than-thou" people. The nerve of those in-laws trying to steal the young daughter of Sofia (Madeleine Daly) away to Hong Kong all in the name of goodness for everyone. Ha!!! This movie ends well with those wicked in-laws going off into their "future" without their ace card (the young daughter). Now they have to fend for themselves "alone" in British Hong Kong (this assuming their scheme involved the young child as a pawn, and the easiest and most useful thing to merge back into Haute Society, such as matching poor aristocrats with untitled industrial money. There have been countless marriages of convenience, in combinations such as this, and there will be more).
The child, the mother, and the blind American, Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) are all reconciled in a Divinely poetical sense, which supports belief in Idealism in spite of the facts of poverty, death, war, prejudice, and hate. It is love, not greed for wealth and status that draws them together, and effectively cuts off those old biddies trying to use everyone for personal gain.
All in all, the slow-moving interaction between all the characters is acceptable to me. Having the blind American and the countess coolly interact for seventy-five percent or more of the film sets up the story of what it really would have been like between two people like them in a situation like that. They both were survivors. Strange how Merchant and Ivory fans are expecting on screen chemistry such as that between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, in a Merchant/Ivory film (hmmmm?). This film seeks to find beauty combined with tragedy, and, like all Merchant and Ivory films, functions on a wholly cerebral level that will affect your heart after your brain processes all the ideas.
In conclusion, this film is about three things: (1) Political intrigue, and the rise of Japan as a power, (2) The White Countess Nightclub, where something tragic and something beautiful intersects, and (3) the white countess, the woman, whose tragic life merged with the tragic life of the blind American. Relax, all you harsh critics, and try to see more than just a simple romance or props and background.
I expect James Ivory to continue building on the great body of work already established by Merchant and Ivory. And, although Ismail Merchant is dead, I'm sure James Ivory's future films will still be tomes from the heart, and not at all intended for commercial venture.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
On the surface, "The White Countess" is another gorgeous production from the Merchant/Ivory camp. With stunning sets, cinematography, music, costumes--the production values are unquestionably noteworthy. The cast is impeccable--Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave. This film seems to have everything going for it. And yet, for all the gloss and beauty--there is an emotional void in the center of this picture. I wanted to get lost in this world--but I was kept at arm's length throughout.
Set in Shanghai in the 1930's, the film tells the story of a blind American diplomat (Fiennes) who is politically out of favor and haunted by the loss of his family. His dream is to establish a cutting edge nightclub called the White Countess. By bringing together the perfect talent, the right atmosphere, and a mixed political clientele--the bar stands as a rather underdeveloped metaphor for Shanghai itself. Nastasha Richardson, as a displaced member of Russian aristocracy, is discovered by Fiennes as a dance-hall girl and elevated to the club's symbolic hostess. As the political situation becomes more threatening, the two must face more serious issues and possible romance.
There seem to be lots of fascinating characters in "The White Countess," but the primary issue is that we never really get to know them. And the historical backdrop seems to be enthralling, but is never fully explored. And the political climate seems like it would provide a riveting story, but it is referenced only in vague terms. I wanted to like this movie so much--but in the end, I was left only with the impression of what a great film this might have been.
Merhant/Ivory have provided us with a number of classic films--all literate and well presented. But it's a fine balancing act in these prestige pictures--you have to incorporate real passions within the surface beauty. That's what "Countess" is missing. Looking at three classic Merchant/Ivory productions--"Countess" lacks the full-bodied characterizations of "Howard's End," the romantic yearning and subtle political commentary of "Remains of the Day," and the astute sense of location of "A Room With a View." There is plenty to recommend "The White Countess"--but sadly, there is not a lot to love about it. KGHarris, 12/06.